A Brief History
Pico was discovered in 1427 by Diego de Silves. It was best known shortly afterwards around 1460 for exporting small quantities of wheat and sugar cane to Portuguese settlements in Africa. Later high quality oranges were shipped to England. Additionally hunting of Sperm whales including a processing seaside village of Lajes until hunting of whales was abolished.
It is generally believed that the Franciscan friars brought Verdelho to the Azores Islands as it had a similar climate as Sicily. What is not understood is having a variety (Verdelho) that genetically has nothing to do with any other in the world, the only similarity that it has and is a very distant family is with Malvasia Fina. While not knowing the origin is in Sicily, however the Island of Pantelleria in Sicily, has one of the most ancient varieties in the world (Zibibbo = Muscat of Alexandria) and they produce it in stone corrals like Pico.
Verdelho is originally from Pico, there are no records of Verdelho in Madeira until 200 years after our appearance on the market. The Arinto dos Açores, in the ancient records was referred to as the Verdelho with force (Verdelho Valente) and is an evolution of the original Verdelho (we don’t know genetically who the father is, but the mother is Verdelho), the Terrantez do Pico is a spontaneous hybrid between the Verdelho and the Bastardo variety.
One of the first stops was the Museum of Wine in Madalena. Here we were given a personal tour by the extremely knowledge and friendly Ana Isabel Ferreira, who works there. Her intimate understanding of history and winemaking made this one of the highlights of the island. A must visit to get an appreciation of Pico wines.
At the harbor called Rola Pipas. This is where the barrels were rolled down a track on top of the stone. So much wine went down it actually left a groove in the stones (seen at the museum called Riheiras). The marks of the shrouds were left by the wheels of the bull-cars. This started in late 1400’s and continued until 1750. The barrels were then floated out to sea to be picked up by small vessels and then uploaded to a large sailing ship to be transported around the world. This included Verdelho reaching the Czars of Russia wine cellars to Thomas Jefferson’s wine cellar in America. This is a rich history of wine making not generally known in America.
Pico followed suite with Europe and lost most of their vines in the mid-19th century due to oidium mildew and phylloxera pest attacking the vineyards. The recovery has been slow in rebounding for Pico. The government stepped in and is now helping and providing incentives to “kick start” wine production once again.
Geography of Pico
Pico was basically under the land barons or captaincy of Faial, who were given grants by the throne in Lisbon. The land barons would have workers in Pico who worked the land harvesting and toiling with the soil. At the Wine Museum in Madalena, a re-enactment of the workers working the currais or corrals of a few vineyards growing on the ground. The currais were loose rock walls 3 to 4 feet in height with large basaltic rocks and smaller pebbles filling in the spaces.
The intent of the walls is to minimize the impact to the vines (contrasting the tall Mt Pico, 7713 foot elevation verses the ocean) of salty sea breezes on the vines with the winds blowing in both direction at time.
The land barons in Faial actually sent “soil” since Faial was a much older island than Pico (3 million years old verses 300,000 years old). Each vine was given a bucket of soil and a vine then planted in the rocky soil. The vineyards have similar higher rock walls designating one owner from another called “jeirões”. It is said that with these volcanic rocks forming the various “currais and jeirões” since the mid 1400’s, if all those stones were laid out end to end, it would circle the equator twice!
One of the more unique growing regions in the world. The vines are generally planted to only about 300 foot elevation above sea level. So from the seashore up the hill is where 99% of the vines are planted. There is an old saying that the vines like to be planted close to the ocean in order to hear the crabs sing!
Banding Together and Formation of the Coop
In 1949 the Pico Island Wine Cooperative was founded called Ilha do Pico, Coop Vitivinícola. They banded vineyard producers to leverage production of their historic grape culture. Today they are have almost 300 associates made up of small family vineyards producing grapes based on their traditional production ancestry. The Coop votes for a President, Losménio Goulart who votes for a General Director, Pedro Cavaleiro to serve a two year stint. Today the Coop represents about 60% of the grapes grown in Pico. The Coop has at least 14 different wine labels and counting in their portfolio.
We were hosted for the tasting by Bernardo Cabral, head winemaker for the Coop. While we tasted over a dozen wines here is brief description of a few of them:
*Terras DeLava 2021 Rose – Strong aromatics and mineral qualities.
*Terras DeLava 2019 Vinho Branco – comprises Verdelho, Arinto and Tinto. Light yellow with a green tint. Again, tropical and citrus fruits with a vivid freshness.
*2018 Frei Gigante – combining Arinto, Verdelho and Terrantez. Light yellow, tropical & citrus aromas with bright acidity.
*Terras DeLava 2019 – Merlot. Full of red fruits (raspberry/strawberry) and a slight smoky finish.
** Additionally we tasted several “still in the barrel” wines which will be released mid-2023 made with rare Portuguese oak providing a white chocolate with varietals comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon (12.5%), Cabernet Franc (12.5%), Merlot (50%) and Syrah (25%). Another three tasted were versions of Isabela, the forbidden grape, a 2018, 2016 and 2014. The 2016 was very good and the other two were just a bit “strong” in flavor for my tastes, albeit only 10-11% alcohol. Lastly was a 10 year old Tawny with 17% brandy fortification which would served as a wonderful after dinner cordial.
A personal tour of the Coop was provided by Pedro Cavaleiro and so appreciated. While extremely knowledgeable about the Coop, the Island production, vineyards, grapes, etc., the key was his (and also Bernardo’s) enthusiasm and emotional connection to the families working and producing grapes. Also both Pedro and Bernardo exuded an uncompromising optimism regarding the Coop’s future.
Here are a two pictures of the Coop during the tour.
Contrasting new French oak wine barrels with 50-70 year Portuguese oak barrels. Both are used by the Coop.
One of our favorite wines from the Coop but not tasted during the visit, rather enjoyed at a local restaurant was Eruptio, not only for the quality of the wine, but the historic rendition of the label:
While many grapes thrive, their key and highest qualities grapes of Pico are Arinto, Terrantez and Verdelho. Most of these grapes show a remarkable salinity and mineral quality perfect for typical Azorean seafood dishes or any seafood dish.
Hope you enjoy this story on Ilha do Pico, Coop Vitivinícola and now have an appreciation of their rich and difficult history of growing vines in such rocky soil. Their wines are very well renowned in wine circles and just now becoming more and more familiar in the general public.
I want to personally thank Ana Isabel Ferreira, from the Museum of Wine in Madalena. Her understanding of the history of Pico and the wine industry was invaluable and so appreciated. Also a special thank you to Pedro Cavaleiro and Bernardo Cabral in educating us on the splendors of Pico wines.