Atlantic at Heart - The Wines from the Azores
Attached as we all are to ideas of continuous growth and expansion, it is perhaps hard to imagine places, once prosperous and healthily populated, that went instead into a cycle of decline.
Such is the case with the Azores islands, once bustling with intense exports and trade, an almost total occupation of arable land and, when it comes to viticulture, a steady production of wine for both domestic and commercial consumption. Changes in market models – relying increasingly less on direct maritime shipping – as well as the infamous bouts of phylloxera and mildew led to a massive exodus from these central-Atlantic Portuguese islands during the first half of the 20th century. People followed the previous preferential route of products, making their way mostly to the USA and Central America. The most obvious trace of this mass emigration was the abandonment of the vineyards protected by intricate and laborious structures from moody winds and rogue waves.
Visiting the islands of Pico and Faial to meet producers and taste their wines right after attending the MUST conference in Cascais, was, if nothing else, an intense contact with the fascinating but harsh complexities of winemaking. We wine buffs may spend hours, in a conference hall, discussing market (and marketing!) trends, the dilemmas of online commerce and how to best interpret the concept of terroir. The reality of wine however is that it must first be produced and that all the complexities of farming, labour and market placement must be overcome. Not an easy task when you’re on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic. It is therefore brave and not without considerable commercial risks that producers are looking at investing in the region again.
The work to revive a once prosperous winemaking community and industry is a challenging exercise of quasi-archaeology, combining not only the research on local varieties and the replanting of the plants, but also skilled craftsmanship to recover the sinuous volcanic stone structures that have historically harboured, protected and allowed vines to grow. There are of course compromises to me made between long-standing local traditions and a necessary awareness to the global wine scene. If domestic consumption of wines made from hybrids such as Isabella is praised locally, these are wines that might only be appreciated after a hard-won acquired taste, their rough foxiness not easily enjoyed.
On the other hand, the potential for indigenous vinifera varieties, developed in such specific climate and terroir, is immense. Terrantez do Pico (not the same Terrantez that grows in Madeira), Verdelho do Pico and Arinto dos Açores (again, distinct from the Arinto that grows in mainland Portugal), have a potential to express the mineral intensity and sharp salinity of the volcanic soils, sea breezes and gentle, long growing season, in wines that are both idiosyncratic and elegant.
Entrepreneurs, both local and from continental Portugal, are slowly but surely discovering the character of these varieties and their potential in international markets both for the intrinsic character of the wines but also for the fascination that the landscape in which they grow can trigger. Azores Wine Company (headed by Alentejo-born Antonio Maçanita winemaker and consultant), Cancela do Porco and Pedras Brancas are good examples of producers focusing on harnessing the full potential of the archipelago’s best fruit.
There remain obvious challenges. Producing wines in the heart of the Atlantic isn’t exactly straightforward: recovering and maintaining the vineyard’s labyrinthic structures and finding quality labour is not the easiest of tasks and doesn’t come cheap. The competitiveness of these wines will therefore need to be established through their quality, specificity, context and history rather than the value-for-money proposition that has driven the success of most Portuguese winemaking regions. After visiting these lava-moulded islands, the potential for such a proposition is there to see.
A few highlights from the wines tasted on our visit to the islands:
Cacarita, Verdelho - Colheita Seleccionada 2018
The varietal’s zesty citrus is underpinned by appealing smokiness and nuttiness. An intriguing combination of flavours made coherent by the saline fingerprint of the local terroir.
Curral Atlantis, Verdelho & Arinto dos Açores 2018
Textural flintiness in a food-friendly wine with sharp acidity balanced by intense lime zest and Granny Smith apple flavours. Crunchy and grainy.
Azores Wine Company, Vinhas Velhas 2016
A field blend (predominantly Arinto) hailing from one the few surviving old-vineyards on the Pico island. Elegantly luscious, with an oily texture. Flavours of lemon curd and olive brine, touched by smokey notes.
Azores Wine Company, Arinto dos Açores 2014
It will be interesting, in the future, to explore the ageing potential of Azorean wines. This five-year-old Arinto offers some hints: a golden hue wrapped around flavours of toasted almonds, honey-glazed apples and dried apple peel. The sharp acidity is beautifully integrated under the flinty, textural mouthfeel.
Azores Wine Company, Saborzinho 2015
A rare example of a single variety dry-red from local, almost lost, Tinta Negra. Medium acidity and body, firm tannins, distinct flavour of dried cranberries and red cherries. A good red for intense sea food (the local octopus and tuna come to mind).
— posted by Ines Salpico