Azorean Island Of Pico Notches Up Wine Quality

After a visit fourteen years ago to Pico, one of nine Portuguese Azorean islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, I wrote a blog post about the vineyards. Five years earlier these had been given UNESCO World Heritage designation. This is because the vineyards are unique: most are non-trellised within small walled enclosures; the rock walls protect vines from Atlantic winds and also reradiate warmth absorbed during the day. Historically, the effort to build these walls had been gargantuan.

Seven years ago I visited Pico again to find the wine industry gaining a foothold with greater international recognition. Once again white wines dominated in quality, made primarily from the three local grapes of Arinto, Verdelho and Terrantez do Pico.

During a recent return visit to Pico, it was clear that the state of the wine industry is robust, expanded, more internationally recognized and has notched up in overall quality. This is partially due to winemakers studying and gaining experience in off-island locations, as well as their experimenting with new techniques.

Frei Gigante white wine and Terras de Lava red wine are still popular and well-priced, and the Azores Wine Company, created over a decade ago, has successfully promoted wines made from previously endangered grape varieties.

One of the founders of that company, Paulo Machado, is now weaving fresh flavors on Pico.

The word for a wine production or storage location in Portuguese is adega. We found Machado at Tito’s Adega located on the northern and western shoreline of Pico, just east of the airport. He produces wines from grapes grown on the north and south sides of the island. Born on Pico, he is now winemaker for A Cerca dos Frades, with a label that boasts ‘Sea Wine Volcanic Legacy.’

‘I was born here 49 years ago and since being a child have had a love for vineyards,’ he said. ‘I studied agronomy at a local school and then in Porto.’

Another Pico winemaker, twenty-two year old Lucas Lopes Amaral, spent three years studying enology on mainland Portugal.

‘My father has some vines and cows. My mother sold grapes to the cooperative. But when they stopped buying grapes due to Covid, I was finishing my studies and decided to produce wine.’

Amaral is now surprising the local scene with non-traditional wine making techniques (a supple white wine made from Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon on an island in the middle of the Atlantic? A rosé that includes both Agronómica and Gewürtztraminer?). He is quick to tell visitors that he also owns four cows—making it clear that his hands are deep into wider aspects of island agriculture.

Lucas and wife Daniela serve food at their adega with ample windows perched oceanside on the southern/western portion of Pico. Plates include local cheeses and sausage as well as limpets and crabs. Lucas is proud of his forearm tattoo of a wine glass with both a swirling ocean and a whale fluke inside, and English words written below: Wine is my life and the ocean is my soul.

Tasting notes on their wines are below.

A Cerca Dos Frades. White Wine. DOP-Pico. 2021. 89 points.

Made from the Verdelho grape, which is the mother of two other grapes grown on the island—Arinto and Terrantez do Pico. Aromas of fresh lime and gooseberries, salt and honey. Wonderful length with slight mint on the finish.

A Cerca Dos Frades. Verdelho. DOP-Pico. 2021. 90 points.

Fermented partially in second year French barrels. Aromas of fresh bread, melon and lime, as well as flavors of mint, honey, grapefruit. Bright acidic finish.

A Cerca Dos Frades. Garrafeira. Arinto Dos Açores. DOP-Pico. 2021. 91 points.

Of three white wine grapes predominantly grown on Pico, Arinto has more acidity than Verdelho, which in turn has more acidity than Terrantez do Pico. Soft tropical aromas of grapefruits, as well as marshmallows. An oily mouth feel, and sparky but clean and focused acidity.

A Cerca Dos Frades. Terrantez Do Pico. DOP-Pico. 2021. 91 points.

From the Terrantez do Pico grape, which almost went extinct due to its difficult to grow and get to the correct ripeness, this includes tropical aromas such as mandarin, as well as floral aromas that include violets. A rounded, delicate, intense wine with balanced acidity and fruit, and a creamy length.

Insula by Paulo Machado. Chão de Lava AA rosé. IG Açores. 2022. 90 points.

Paulo Machado’s own label is Insula, and this wine is named after a type of volcanic lava. This wine is made from 10 grape varieties, including Syrah, Merlot, Touriga Nacional and local grapes. Delicate acidity in this Provençal style rosé. Pair with a shrimp or even fat such as foie gras.

Insula by Paulo Machado. Arinto dos Açores. IG Açores. 2020. 89—90 points.

A buxom array of floral aromas, as well as aromas of green apples and apricots. Flavors of pineapple with a bright mid palate and acidic finish. Still young, and not yet for sale.

Insula by Paulo Machado. Verdelho. IG Açores. 2020. 91 points.

Fermented and aged in oak. Creamy and flinty aromas and flavors that are Burgundian, with slight pineapples, green apples, salt and pepper.

Insula by Paulo Machado. Arinto. IG Açores. 2019. 92 points.

Dark yellow colored from a vintage that had the heaviest rain in Pico in 120 years. Evolution of these wines after fermentation for one year was significant, but then slowed. Aromas are similar to a white wine aged for 10 years and include green apples, nutmeg, lemon drops and toast. Complex and delightful. This is a rich wine that includes flavors of butterscotch, mint and lime mid palate; this will pair with a huge range of foods.

Insula by Paulo Machado. Verdelho. IG Açores. 2019. 92 points.

Aromas of toast, butterscotch, caramel, pineapples, guava, blood oranges. Complex creamy and silky with mid palate flavors that include lime and oatmeal.

Insula by Paulo Machado. Chã de Lava Pahoehoe. 10 Years Dry. DO Pico. 93 points.

A fortified wine with aromas of maple syrup, orange chocolate, sultanas. A seriously stunning surprise from Pico. Complex, hardy, full and rich rounded orange flavors mid palate.

Adega Vitivinícola Lucas Amaral. Cadmarvor Bianco. IG Açores. 2021. 93 points.

A white wine made from a blend of international red grapes—Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon—aged only in steel. Aromas of orange peel, apricots, mandarins. Oily mouth feel with flavors of green apples, nectarines. Fine acidity—both supple and precise. An Azorean next level surprise for winemakings.

Adega Vitivinícola Lucas Amaral. Lágrimas de Mãe rosé. IG Açores. 2022. 92 points.

The name means ‘my mother’s tears,’ and the aromas of this Merlot/Syrah/Agronómica/Gewürtztraminer blend are spunky—white pepper, gooseberries and strawberries. Brittle mid palate and crisp and silky flavors of oranges with kiwi fruit.

Adega Vitivinícola Lucas Amaral. Cadmarvor Fernão Pires. IG Açores. 2021. 91 points.

This is made from the Fernão Pires white grape. Aromas of sultanas, orange peel, salt and mandarins. Flavors include gooseberries, oranges and slight cinnamon mid palate with a silky mouth feel.

Adega Vitivinícola Lucas Amaral. Cadmarvor Private Collection. IG Açores. 2021. 91 points.

A blend of Merlot/Syrah/ Agronómica aged in steel as well as American and Portuguese oak. Aromas of black pepper, smoke, sausage and chocolate. Rich robust flavors and tannins.

Both winemakers Lucas Amaral and Paulo Machado share similar traits: both are attentive, modest, precise, thoughtful, slightly reserved and passionate not only about their home island, but also about the wines they produce and their locally available foods—including rich cheeses, sardines, beef and fish.

Their efforts also highlight an emerging international wine trend. Some decades ago, winemakers throughout the world began focusing on the use of ‘international’ grapes that were commercially successful in nations such as the U.S. These included Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay. This trend was followed by a backlash focus so that producers promoted the use of local grapes instead—whether Grillo from the island of Sicily or Albariño from Portugal. Now a trend emerges of producers proudly blending both local and international grapes and serving them in novel formats—whether white wines made from red grapes or as a smattering of over eight grapes within one blend.

What fundamentally matters to consumers of wine is taste. But the location where wine is consumed—be it stunning or sublime—can also impact the overall experience. Consider vines views near rolling California hills or Oregon coastlines, or the sight of vines below Mount Etna or Mount Ararat, or before Swiss Alps seen from the Valais or New Zealand peaks viewed from Wanaka. In this regard—visually—the mid-Atlantic volcanic island of Pico will also not disappoint visitors.

[An associated article about whale boat racing in the Azores and Pico is here.]

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