The Azores was awarded the Best Sustainable Wine Tourism Destination in 2023 by the ITER-VITIS, an international association created in Italy in 2007 that promotes wine tourism itineraries around the world

ITER-VITIS recognises the best practices in wine tourism, that protect and promote the ancient tradition of vineyards and wine and the landscape linked to them, as well as innovation and respect for environmental, social and economic sustainability.

The association deemed the Azores, one of the 14 wine regions in Portugal, worthy of the Best Sustainable Wine Tourism Destination title in 2023. Let us show you why…

The archipelago of the Azores, located about 1,450km from Lisbon, lies in the Atlantic Ocean, halfway between the European and North American continents and consists of nine volcanic islands: São Miguel, Santa Maria, Faial, Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, Flores and Corvo.

Grape cultivation began here at the beginning of the 16th century when the islands served as the main port for ships bound for the New World. The grape varieties planted at that time are thought to come from Crete or Cyprus.

In the beginning, all nine islands had their own vineyards, but the phylloxera epidemic in 1857 destroyed a significant part of them. Wine production and export decreased dramatically as the result, but in the late 1900s, the downhill trend was reversed when the Azores government focused on producing and distributing local wines. Today, the number of vineyards on the islands has doubled – there are currently around 500 hectares, approximately 80% of which are located on the island of Pico, which has become known the floating wine region.

Pico took its name from the beautiful, sometimes snow-covered volcanic peak that dominates the landscape. At 2,350meters, it is the highest point in the archipelago and also in Portugal.

Being a volcanic island, Pico’s rocky surface is practically a black basalt crust that looks like burnt toast in places. This also explains why it has the most grapes, unlike the other islands, whose beautiful green landscapes provide the archipelago with fantastic supplies of cheese, butter, pineapples, and bananas.

In recognition of the uniqueness of Pico Island’s viticulture, the island’s vineyards were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

The land
Pico’s vineyards are located in extreme conditions, close to the ocean, on volcanic soil, surrounded by dry stone walls made of black basalt stones, in a really spectacular net structure. The ocean sprays the grapes with salt, but it also enters the soil, from where it also reaches the plant through the roots of the fruit.

The climate of the island is moderate, with an average temperature of 16-18 degrees. The Atlantic influence causes mild temperatures, heavy rains (especially in winter), and increased humidity, and the ocean wind is almost constant. Frequent fog favours fungal diseases, so anti-fungal spraying is essential on the island.

Due to the robust soil and the harsh wind, it is impossible to set up the usual vine trellises, so the vineyards are arranged, like a chessboard, approximately divided into 3x6m rectangular cells surrounded by volcanic stone walls called ‘currais’, which collect heat during the day and radiate it back to the vines at night.

Due to these special conditions, the grapes and the wines made from them have truly unique characteristics.

The grapes
In the Azores, 33 grape varieties are currently allowed to be planted, 15 red and 18 white. Among these, the three main white grapes are Arinto dos Açores, Verdelho and Terrantez do Pico.

The Azores became a demarcated wine region in 1994. The majority of Azorean wines are white, fresh and tart thanks to the humid, temperate climate, and are mainly made from the three indigenous grape varieties mentioned above, while the red wines are made from Merlot, Syrah, and other hybrid varieties.

Currently, the islands produce about one million litres of wine, most of which is sold locally, and include 10% liqueur wines. The latter offers remarkable freshness and acidity. The most outstanding of them is the liqueur wine from Pico Island, which has been highly valued since the 18th century.

The Czar liqueur wine of Pico
The ‘Czar’ wine, produced in the Criação Velha area of the hundred-year-old vineyards of the volcanic Pico Island, is the only wine in the world that naturally reaches 20% alcohol level.

Liqueur wines have a long tradition on the island, and Tolstoy already referred to them in his work War and Peace. In 1820, more than 23,000 litres of late-harvest wine were sent to St. Petersburg, to the tsar’s court.

The phylloxera outbreak of 1850, left only the vineyards of Criação Velha intact. The father of the current winemaker, José Duarte Garcia, bought the estate in the 1960s, and started making non-fortified liqueur wines. Originally, he didn’t even bottle his drink – it was consumed with family and friends. But after Duarte learned that in 1917 a large quantity of late-harvest wine from Pico Island had been found in the cellars of Czar Miklós II, he decided to start bottling his wine under the Czar name, in order to boost the island’s wine production and reputation again. To this day, he uses his own hand-drawn logo and label on his bottles.

The first Czar wines were bottled in 1969 and sold the next year; from the beginning of the 2000s, the wine won one medal after another, at both local and international wine competitions.

This high-acid, low-sugar liqueur wine contains all three main Azores white grape varieties, usually harvested and pressed after 15 September, then naturally fermented before being placed in old French oak barrels. During fermentation, the wine reaches a minimum alcohol content of 18.5%.

Since the Czar wine – unlike Port wine – is never fortified with added alcohol, the resulting style is a product of the given vintage, so a different kind of wine is actually born every year.

The wine is aged for eight years in barrels to make it richer in aroma and taste. The cellar is warm – the humidity is around 70% – so according to the winemaker’s estimate, each barrel loses around 70-80 litres due to evaporation.

The resulting drink has a deep amber colour, aromas of nuts, caramel, malt, and tobacco, and flavors of raisins and apricots.

Words: Lívia Mokri

Share This Story