The islands of the Azores lie just off the European coast and present a series of experiences unlike any other you will find in the world. These nine Portuguese islands are linked by culture and language, but they each have their own little unique quirks. You can run with the bulls on Terceira, soak in the hot springs Sao Miguel or eat fresh barnacles on the quay in Faial. But by far the most interesting experience for the wine lover is the island of Pico where volcanoes brew a particular heady mix of seafood and wine.
So let’s just say it, I’m no wine expert! In fact my sommelier skills are so limited that I judge a wine simply by whether it tickles my fancy. That’s not to say that I am completely without experience; I’ve drunk more wine than a boatload of pirates and that’s just on an average Sunday.
And so it is with no small amount of glee that I accepted an assignment to explore the vineyards of Pico. But I had NO idea exactly what I was in for. You see, the islands of the Azores are situated above an active triple junction between three of the world’s large tectonic plates and are the result of relatively recent volcanic activity.
Mount Pico, responsible for the formation of the island, rises up out of the sea and dominates the landscape. The earth underfoot is black volcanic rock and the weather is a sulky, rainy affair with the temperature hovering around 17 degrees. With steady winds from the sea laden with salt, it seems like a pretty inhospitable place to grow a grape.
But the industrious people of Pico discovered that if they build small courtyards, surrounded on all sides by walls made from black volcanic rock, they can create small micro-climates that allow for a few grapevines to grow. The vines grow close to the ground, making sure to keep below the walls to protect themselves from the wind. And those walls sure do go on forever. For ever ever.
The idea that poor settlers without gloves (and in some cases shoes) carried these rocks by hand to build the absolutely endless patchwork of walls kind of blows my mind. The sheer determination and gargantuan nature of the task is enough to make the wine of Pico so special that you savor every sip.
I like the people of Pico; they are warm and inviting and I can’t walk more than a couple of meters without being offered a beverage. Almost everyone on the island has a little vineyard where they grow a couple of vines; a tradition that resulted from some grape blight that caused the large vineyard-owners to abandon ship and made available these small courtyards for purchase to local growers.
The grapes are harvested and dropped off at the co-op which produces most of Pico’s wines. Growers are paid in wine or money, as they prefer. That’s my kind of currency! Each little village also has a public distillery where homeowners can bring their fruits and berries to be converted to moonshine.
Needless to say, I tried them all. While the wines aren’t the best I have ever tasted, the absolutely unique circumstances in which they are grown, the warmth of the hospitality and the plates of fresh seafood make it go down just fine, thank you.