Sep 10, 2016

Volcanic Island Wines: The Azores and Madeira



September 22, 2016   |   By Edward M. Korry, CHE, CSS, CWE 

ed1This past June, I was fortunate to visit both the islands of the Azores and Madeira. The latter has long been on my wine region bucket list, given its historic ties to the U.S. and its special qualities and longevity. It was a trip full of vinous and culinary surprises, which I will briefly describe. As I always like to point out, stories sell and, boy, do these wines have stories! And that’s the relevance to on-premise operators – not only do they have unique stories but also, the quality of the wines is superb.

The Azores

I had been aware that the Azores had been a significant global wine producer up to the mid-19th century, when powdery mildew and phylloxera struck and pretty much wiped out its wine industry. Among the nine islands that constitute this mid-Atlantic archipelago (900 miles from Portugal’s mainland), I expected neither the verdant nature of the islands with their pineapple, banana and tea plantations; their dairy industry with rich and flavorful cheese traditions; nor their wine renaissance.

There are three DOP and one regional IGP appellations from the Azores: Pico DO, Graciosa DO and Biscoitos DO and Azores IGP. The regional appellation includes wines from different islands and those made with international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Pico Island is the Azores’ principal wine producing island. It is known as “Ilha Preta” or the “Black Island,” due to its black basalt lava rock, and is named after Portugal’s highest mountain peak, Ponta do Pico at 7,710 feet. It looms in the background of this salty, windswept isle, which is most often in a shroud of mist – at least while I was there. It is 173 square miles large and has a quarter of the Azores’ population, with about 15,000 inhabitants.


Pico’s vineyards

Wine was first produced on the island 10 years after settlement, around 1439. It is a testament to man’s will to harness nature. At its height, Pico had over 7,500 acres of vineyards with over nine million liters of wine production. Its reputation, especially for sweet or fortified wines, extended from the Russian Czar’s court to the Americas. Its vineyards, which are truly awe-inspiring, are the reason for its having been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004.

The vineyards are small, individual rectangular plots for one to six vines, called “currais,” that are surrounded by four-foot high black lava rock walls. If one were to extend these walls end to end along with the taller walls, called “jeiros,” that separate properties, they would circumnavigate the globe twice. Without these walls, vines would be unable to survive the salty ocean winds. Adding to this picturesque environment are the “adegas” – small, startlingly whitewashed and black lava stone houses with pergola trellised patios. Adegas have a special place in Pico’s inhabitants’ hearts, as they are used to house their tools for their work in the vineyards and as the gathering place in the evenings during harvest, to eat and drink under the stars.


The grapes

The uniqueness of the environment is matched by the uniqueness of the varieties grown there. The three main varieties are Arinto do Pico, Terrantez do Pico and the Verdelho do Pico, which seems to be identical to the Verdelho of Madeira but not to that of the mainland. What makes these wines special is their bracing acidity and their minerally, almost “salty” and a hint of seaweed character, which leave a long impression and make any delicate seafood accompaniment absolutely delicious. The closest approximation to the profile of these wines is those wines of other volcanic islands such as the Assyrtiko of Santorini and the Carricante of Mount Etna in Sicily. There is definitely something one can attribute to wines grown on volcanic islands.

The Arinto do Pico is now the predominant variety (not the same as mainland Portugal’s) because it is resistant to mildew and diseases. It also is quite productive, considering the vines need to delve deep into the soils to reach pockets of moisture, though the yields are around 1.25 tons per acre. The Verdelho, upon which Pico had built its fame, has riper flavors with more depth and is more full-bodied.

The Terrantez grape in the Azores neared extinction some 10 years ago. There was an experimental station on San Miguel Island that had 89 vines remaining before being rescued by the commitment of Antonio Maçanita, celebrated young winemaker and a partner of the Azores Wine Company. This grape also has high acid and more stone fruit character.

After phylloxera’s destructive onslaught, the paltry remaining acreage was planted in Licoros Winesto Isabella, an American hybrid. The irony is that due to the EU’s legal restriction, the Isabella cannot be sold with reference to its non-vitis vinifera name so it is being sold to high-end restaurants in Europe under the label of “The Forbidden One.” There are other varieties including international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah that are labeled under the regional IPR versus higher level Pico DO. The pale-colored indigenous red that I found most intriguing was the Saborinho, which is identical to Madeira’s largest planted red, Tinta Negra Mole, and which has beautifully refreshing red fruit character and soft integrated tannins, with a minerally finish.


Fortified and non-fortified sweet wines of Lajido

The wine upon which Pico built its reputation is its Lajido Licoroso wines, named after the first settlement of Lajes. There are different styles of wines made from Verdelho or a blend of Arinto, Verdelho and Terrantez – those that are late harvested, semi-sweet or sweet but unfortified, such as “Czar” de Jose Duarte Garcia; and those that are fortified and dry. Sweet Lajido wines have a minimum of 45 g/liter of residual sugar, while dry Lajido must have 15g/l residual sugar or less. The confusing element is that many of the wines labeled “licoroso” have had no additional alcoholic fortification and may be as high as 18% naturally. They tend to be aged for a minimum of three years in oak and some for considerably longer.

The dry Lajido, with less than 15 g/l of residual sugar, has similarities to sherry’s amontillado in its oxidative nature and buttery core, but it has that seaweed saltiness on the finish. Acting as sommelier at the Azores’ 10 Fest to Michelin-starred Chef Jose Campoviejo of el Corral del Indianu in Asturias, Spain, I selected such a dry Lajido 2004 wine to accompany his first course of a white chocolate bonbon filled with a San Miguel cheese at its core. The pairing worked extremely well because its intensity held up to the food and there was just enough residual sugar to offset the touch of sweetness. The wine’s bracing acidity enlivened the dish further, while its tannins were muted by the salty richness of the cheese.

The mere handful of Lajido wine producers include the dominating co-op, Co-operativa Vitivincola da Ilha do Pico that started in the 1950s, which has several brands including Frei Gigante, Terras de Lava and Basalto, The Azores Wine Company, Adega A Buraca, Curral Atlantis, Cacarita and Czar. The exciting news is that these wines are available in the U.S. now and provide operators with another story to sell to their guests. Production on the island is beginning to ramp up, and it is only a matter of time before these wines will be well known among wine drinkers in the U.S.


My visit in Madeira was all too short but I came away with a different impression than what I came with. The volcanic island thrusts out of the ocean with very little accessible coastline because of its steep cliffs and slopes. Funchal, the capital, is where most of Madeira’s population lives. I was surprised by how much of a European tourist destination it is with, I am told, over 35,000 hotel rooms. The city has maintained some of its colonial charm, with its tree- and flower-lined roads, and is also noticeably kept very clean. One looks up to the looming volcanic mountains where one can go part of the way up via cable car, which I did, just for the view. The most startling aspect is how Madeira’s vineyards, at least on the southern side of the island, are tiny plots forming a quilted patchwork of green among houses on the steep slopes. The total vineyard acreage is 1,180 acres, with an average holding of its 1,050 growers of half an acre. The eight remaining producers depend almost entirely on contracts with these grape growers. Intermingled among these plots are banana, chayote and other crops. The lower altitude is more amenable to bananas and other crops, while the higher altitudes are where some of the finest grapes are grown. Madeira is in a subtropical zone, thus warmer and more humid than the Azores.



Madeira’s historical connection to the United States, from its colonial period on, has been well documented. One could argue that if there was an early American wine, it was from Madeira. It is often repeated, though unsubstantiated, that the signing of the Declaration was toasted with Madeira wine. It was a mainstay of Thomas Jefferson’s cellar. Madeira’s victualing port of Funchal was critical to much of the trade between Britain and the Southern ports of Savannah and Charleston. The Dutch and English, in particular, can be held responsible for the development and ubiquity of fortified wines. Madeira, Portugal, Spain, Sicily, Australia and South Africa are all examples of where they were developed and shipped. Fortifying wines stabilizes and enables them to better survive long ocean voyages.

Madeira wines were used as ballast in the holds of ships, where they were subjected to high humid temperatures over months and even years. They were basically cooked, which unintentionally made them almost impervious to long aging. There are a surprising number of drinkable Madeira wines from both the 18th and 19th centuries that are still available.

The vineyards

The viticultural landscape of Madeira is very impressive with its terracing, called “poios,” on its steep volcanic slopes, its granite water channels and low pergola systems, called “latadas.” This allows for better airflow to reduce the threat of fungi, one of which began the downfall of Madeira in the 1850s. Needless to say, as in Pico, all viticultural work is manual. Traveling up the winding narrow road along the many precipices, one can imagine how difficult it was to bring in the harvest to the wineries in prior centuries.


The Grapes and Process

The dominant grape variety grown in Madeira is Negra Tinta Mole or Tinta Negra, and it cannot currently have its name referenced on the label. The noble and traditional grapes are labeled varietally from driest to sweetest wines: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey (Malvasia).  Terrantez and Bastardo are also traditional grapes and allowed on the label but quantities are very small.

Sercial and Verdelho are de-stemmed and pressed, while Bual and Malmsey are frequently left on the skins for cold soak maceration and fermentation, giving the wines more phenolic structure and tannins. The latter two are medium to very sweet, so are balanced by both the structure and high acid. Just like the wines of Pico, all Madeira wines are marked by very high acidity. This preserves these wines as much as the “canteiro” or “estufagem” heating process. To replicate the long seafaring voyages, wines are either warmed by the naturally heated canteiro system in solar-heated warehouses or the estufagem system, which for the most part takes place in large, temperature-controlled, heat jacketed stainless steel tanks set at 45 to 50 degrees Celsius for a minimum of three months. There are variations to this system, including the “armazen de calor,” where the wine in large wooden casks is heated by steam pipes in a sealed room, at lower temperatures, for up to a year.



Aside from the varietal proscription, wines that are labeled “Reserve” must have a minimum of five years of aging; those labeled “Special Reserve” are aged 10 years in canteiros only. “Extra Reserve” wines, with 15 years of aging, are rare because producers are more likely to produce a “vintage” or Frasqueira Madeira, having a minimum of 20 years of aging – 19 in oak and one year in the bottle. The word “vintage” will not appear on the label because it is exclusive to the port trade.

Unfortunately, Madeira’s wines have lost much of their glamour and appeal but they are among the world’s most authentic and extraordinary wines. They can appeal to a broad audience by ranging from dry to sweet, with offsetting acidity and a distinctive, almost caramelized sugar note with dried fruits and baking spices; and they always finish with that ocean-minerally quality that instantly places the consumer in a special place.
I was fortunate to taste delicious wines at Barbeito, also of the famous Rare Wine Company’s Historic Series; and at Blandy’s winery, the oldest producer on the island, a Blandy’s Sercial 1975 and Verdelho 1979; a Cossart Gordon Terrantez 1977 and Bual 1962; and finally a Blandy’s Malmsey 1999. All demonstrated the persistent qualities of Madeira wines and their extraordinary longevity. Even without offering jewels such as these, you can select any wines from Madeira or Pico Island for your guests, who will appreciate something truly special and enjoy being transported by them to a different time and place.