The Azores Wine Society in Pico, Portugal

From the beginning, the vineyards of the Portuguese islands of the Azores have never been solely places of wine production. They were places of social gathering, where the owners invited their friends and families to drink wine, eat and sometimes sleep if they did not feel like going home after wine and meals.

So when the partners of the Azores wine company decided to set up their winery on the island of Pico, they followed this tradition, established centuries ago, almost as soon as the Portuguese discovered the previously uninhabited islands. It would be a wine estate, then others, with rooms for overnight stays, a long table for meals shared with friends and a welcoming tasting room.

Expectations were high, as the Azores Wine Company is one of the most reputable projects in Portugal. Founded in 2014 by winemaker António Maçanita, food festival founder and tourism school director Filipe Rocha and winemaker and Pico native Paulo Machado, the company has essentially put the wines of the Azores on the contemporary map. As soon as they were released, their wines won numerous distinctions. The grapes they produced became the most expensive in Portugal (which is understandable, given the harsh growing conditions and the very high quality), on par with grapes from Champagne, Bordeaux and Napa Valley. So they couldn’t build just any winery. It had to be special.

They chose four architects for the job. Inês Vieira da Silva and Miguel Vieira of SAMI – Arquitectos are long-time residents of Pico, and their company was behind the proposal that allowed the island’s wine landscape and culture to be listed as Unesco World Heritage. They worked with English architects Daniel Rosbottom and David Howarth of DRHR, whom they had met at international conferences and who had contacted Maçanita when Howarth needed information about the Pico vineyards for a project.

Owners and architects traveled to the Loire Valley to research and reflect, as it has countless small vineyards and the dominant grape varieties share a genetic link with those of the Azores. Unlike the French vineyards, however, their plot had views of the ocean, the namesake volcanic mountain of Pico and the neighboring islands of Faial and São Jorge.

Because the land is in this UNESCO protected area and subject to strict measures, and because everyone involved wanted their project to have minimal impact on the landscape, they opted for a square design clad in stone. from the same plot. It was about feeling like an extension of the distinctive stone fences that protect the vines. (More on those later.) The lower level, closer to the sea, is almost invisible from the street.

The shape also echoes two Pico traditions. It is reminiscent of the old water reservoirs of the vineyards and, with its sloping roofs, it collects around 1.5 million liters of water, which is used to water the vines. The other historical reference is the monasteries of the island. The square shape gives it a cloister, an open space surrounded by five apartments (including one with two bedrooms), a tasting area, a restaurant, barrel cellars and technical rooms.

About these wine enclosures: they are hand-built black basalt walls, about half a meter high, and somehow made without any mortar. The idea is to keep the grapes warm in the cool climate of the Azores. And there is a parcel of them, many of them are remnants of the years when Pico was covered with 15,000 hectares of vineyards. (For context, today’s Alentejo, Portugal’s largest wine region, has about 23,000, Rocha says.) The stat that’s thrown around is that if you took down the walls and laid their stones end to end end, they would circumnavigate the equator twice.

When the owners arrived, the walls were filled in with forest and their team spent more than two years restoring the plots. The vines were planted in 2017 and the first harvest took place in 2020. In total, the investment in the winery, which also aims to develop Pico as a wine tourism destination, amounts to 3 million euros.

It was money well spent. The bedrooms, with their plush beds, concrete walls and floors, and sweeping views of the vineyards sloping down to the ocean, are as beautiful as they come. In the restaurant, the talented chefs José Diogo Costa and Angelina Pedra offer ambitious (but successful) tasting menus to enjoy around a magnificent table centered on a basalt stone facing the vines and the sea, or a more informal menu to share . at the counter.

And then there are the wines. I’m no wine critic, but I will happily say they are superb, mineral, salty, well balanced and unlike anything else. (If you want a critical appraisal, Robert Parker gave many of them over 90 points, and the 2018 Vinha Centénaria a total of 95.) They have a taste for history, too.

Maçanita, whose official biography includes words like disruptive, restless and difficult, has a passion for reviving abandoned grape varieties and techniques. (He was making amphora wines ten years ago, long before they got cool.) And Pico was ripe for it.

The island may have once had 15,000 hectares of vineyards and produced prestigious wines found in the cellars of Thomas Jefferson, European aristocracy and Russian czars. But almost everything was wiped out by powdery mildew and phylloxera in the 19th century. In 2004, when the island obtained this designation by UNESCO, only 130 hectares of vineyards were restored. Within five years of the establishment of the Azores Wine Society, there were 650 hectares of the island’s three native varieties, Arinto dos Açores, Verdelho (not to be confused with Verdelho on the mainland) and Torrontez do Pico, an almost extinct grape variety. which Maçanita had never heard of (there were only 89 plants left!) but which was said to make poor wine. Of course, he saw this as a challenge.

He accepted this challenge and won. Sure. There are now over 1,000 hectares of vines (the three white and two red varieties) on the project, and a new generation of winemakers are starting their own production. Of course, 1,000 is still far from 15,000. But as Rocha says, it doesn’t have to be. Wines, hospitality and experience are gems of the wine world, and aficionados need only look for them at the Azores Wine Company.

Shirley M. Pinder