by Barnaby Eales

A Natural High

In the Azorean psyche lies a shared history of inhabiting a place shaped by lava flows and volcanic eruptions. There is also the constant threat of earthquakes and storms, which have, in the past, prompted emigration. Living on Europe’s western flank, out in the mid-Atlantic, the locals have developed something called “Azoreanity”, a term coined by writer Vitorino Nemésio to describe an identity forged from living in a unique, otherworldly archipelago of nine islands.

Wine has been made here since Portugal’s Age of Discovery in the 15th century. But it’s no magic carpet ride. Azorean vineyard yields are generally low; growers also have to deal with insects, salt spray, strong winds, mildew and bunch rot. Climate changed seems to be making things even harder. Rainfall has increased during the summer months. Temperatures are rising. It is said that over the past decade there have only been two all-round ideal vintages.

Why make wine here at all? Brave producers, farming grapes in complicated conditions, remain convinced of the potential to make some of the planet’s most exhilaratingly fresh, luminous, smoky, age-worthy wines in a unique location, where, they say, potassium levels add ‘fatness’ to wines. Indeed, are wineries who make reds and whites with relatively low alcohol and high acidity levels not better placed here than in Iberian Peninsula regions, which have been hit by drought and where some wines have become excessively big? Recently, scientists have discovered that global warming has expanded the Azores High; this high-pressure system, a gatekeeper for European rainfall, is causing dry weather and drought in the Mediterranean.

The Azorean wine revival, which began more than a decade ago, largely thanks to the esteemed Azores Wine Company, is on a roll. Natural experiences are in demand. Wine tourism and EU restructuring funds are playing their part in the upswing in trade. Wine exports leapt from 900 litres in 2003, to more than 60,000 litres in 2022. Tour operators like to compare it to Ireland, with its green, walled fields. Americans even call it Europe’s Hawaii.

What strikes me first is the air. It sends me bounding off, almost floating on a natural high.Disembarking at Terceira Island, there’s a fresh whiff of manure. The cows are happy here; just taste the Azorean cheeses and butter. This soon dissipates into dazzlingly intense, soft, sweet air, as if a thousand flowers had been condensed. Stand. Breathe. Air is a factor of terroir, an element which may have been side-lined elsewhere, but not here.

The cloudscape encircles Portugal’s tallest mountain on wilder, harsher Pico Island, where most of the vines grow. There’s the ever-changing light and weather, and the deep blue of the raging Atlantic, its waves smashing on ancient black basalt rock. Centuries-old currais enclose vines, which grow through cracks of lava rocks at Criação Velha on the western edge of Pico, a World Heritage Site since 2004.  The sense of well-being surrounds you here, just as the sea does. That’s long before you even sniff a glass of Pico, Terceira, Faial, or Graciosa.

After a washout 2022 vintage, abundant wine production in 2023 – higher for some than in 2019 and 2018 – have led to the proliferation of single variety expressions of Verdelho, Arinto dos Açores and Tarrantez do Pico. Such wines are made by Cátia Naranjo, Paulo Machado, André Ribeiro, Lucas Lopes Amaral and Materromenta.  Adega do Vulcão’s winemaker, Alberto Antonini, is making three new wines showing the singularity of each terroir on the islands of Pico and Faial, where its vineyards are planted on elevated lava fields formed from a volcanic eruption in 1967.

Having been the resident winemaker at Azores Wine Company for five years, Cátia Naranjo, a low intervention producer of Etnom wines, has regenerated her family’s old vineyards and plans to build her own winery in the village of Monte. André Ribeiro at Entre Pedras, has recovered his grandfather’s abandoned vineyards to make wines which speak of place. Like thousands of Azoreans, his parents emigrated to North America, but have returned to Pico. Meanwhile, Materramenta on Terceira Island, which has been revamped prior to expansion, has contracted winemaker Constantino Ramos, a rising star of the Minho in northern Portugal.

Guido Mancassola, co-owner of Adega do Vulcão, says the new dynamism on Pico has come from producers, who have broken the monopoly held by the highly reputable Pico Wines.  The island’s co-operative, which remains competitive, sells quality wine at lower prices than other producers.

The Azorean vineyard area has grown to 1,070 ha of vines, but Mancassola says demand has started to exceed supply, pushing up grape prices to between €4 and €4.5 per kilo.  Having acquired vineyards on Pico Island two years ago, Casa Santos Lima, a big Portuguese producer, has now applied for planning permission to build a winery.
Despite distribution challenges, new production methods have galvanised interest in the Azores. Rather than using oak in production, Adega do Vulcão uses concrete eggs for controlled micro-oxygenation, to show purity of fruit expression, and to extend the lees contact of wine.  The Azores Wine Company is using unusual horizontal stainless-steel tanks in part to ensure longer surface lees contact and give greater texture to wines. Its horizontal tanks have sparked interest from winemakers in England, who are increasingly making still wines, where managing acidity is paramount.

Production has spread to Graciosa Island, where veteran winemaker Paulo Machado is making wines for the local co-operative, as well as making his own Insula wines and Tito Silva’s A Cerca dos Frades wine.  Since 2017, Silva has established 21 ha of vineyards on Pico. Adding dimension to production, Machado has recovered fortified winemaking with the release of the much vaunted 10-year-old Chão de Lava Pahoehoe. Azores Wines Company has 35,000 litres of fortified wines ageing in barrels.

Fortunato Garcia, who makes the rare and fine late harvest Czar wines, the 2014 vintage of which has just been released to great acclaim, recalls how his father promised to keep old vineyards of Verdelho and Arinto dos Açores, instead of grubbing them up. It was a promise to Azorean wine heritage, to which Garcia has added fresh impetus with the production of singular wines. Drawing on their Azoreanity, a new generation of producers is putting this remarkable archipelago on the wine map.

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