A Cellar with Pica

Despite the delays caused by the pandemic, Azores Wine Company finally opened its winery on pico island. A dream come true by a triple dynamic, the winemakers Paulo Machado and António Maçanita and the hotel manager Filipe Rocha.

Between May and June, The Azores Wine Company began to receive the first journalists in its new winery – including those who write to you – who served as guinea pigs to try new crops, taste some previous ones, visit the new space and stay overnight (shortly, unfortunately) in the beautiful rooms overlooking the sea that will receive future guests.   

Located on the island of Pico, the most visible with regard to wine production in the Azores, the winery is a project that has begun to be developed since 2015. The dream of having a winery where, in addition to producing wine, if i could sleep, had already been thought since 2014, the date of the company's constitution. But shortly thereafter, in early 2015, this dream began to take shape with the launch of the first stone of the construction of the winery by the hands of the duo of architects (a Portuguese and an English company) SAMI – Arquitectos, composed by Inês Vieira da Silva and Miguel Vieira; and DRHR, the British atelier of Daniel Rosbottom and David Howarth.

Who knows what was there before and witnesses now after, almost does not believe in the almost on human effort made to explore the bush that, however, for years, invaded the traditional corrals of vineyards. When they acquired the land, compact vegetation, the entrepreneurs took hours to cross it. But now the terrain is unrecognizable. The clearing of this forest finally left the discovered corrals that already existed there before, contributing to a landscape now even more beautiful. Situated on the northwest coast, the vineyard is seen well the mountain of Pico but also, in the Atlantic, the islands of São Jorge and Faial. The sea is immense, and the vineyards on land punctuate the volcanic soil and its black stone walls. A place that has both the time and the special. 

In Pico, a winery is more than a space dedicated to wine production. It is also a place of conviviality, where there is always space to receive guests, take out tastings and meals, and also rooms or beds to sleep in. This was a tradition to maintain from the beginning of the project. That's how it was done.Another objective was for the building to be completely inserted into the landscape. Coated with stone gathered on the land itself, the mission was accomplished. The building is a continuity of the meshes of the stone corrals used to protect the vineyards, being also uneven, with a lower dimension in the direction of the sea so that it remains almost invisible seen from the road. The shape of the building fulfills the function of the old vineyard tanks, with the roofs naturally inclined, managing to collect about 1500 m3 of water per year, which are used in the vineyards. Finally, being quadrangular, the construction of the building was inspired by the former convents where wine was also produced, a historical and cultural reference of the island. To remind them, the architects developed inside the cellar a cloister that gives access to all the valences: tasting room, production and storage area and rooms. The investment of the project, which aims to change and promote the island of Pico as a destination for oenotourism, was three and a half million euros.

The building is a continuity of the meshes of the stone corrals used to protect the vineyards. It's almost invisible seen from the road
The construction of the building was inspired by the former convents where wine was also produced, a historical and cultural reference of the island
The construction of the winery was designed by the duo of architects SAMI - Architects and THE DRHR.
Room overlooking the corrals and the Atlantic. A dream of landscape.

Equipped with large spaces and sober lines, the cellar consists of a reception with tasting room, three rooms of barrels, industrial area, an event/gastronomic space, five bedrooms, all with sea view, and a 2 bedroom apartment. Not intending to be a hotel, Azores Wine Copany is a special place where oenophiles can stay overnight as if they were at the house of friends, enjoying an unforgettable gastronomic and wine experience. So it's worth being a guinea pig.

A project with soul

During the time spent in the winery, and in the vineyards that belong to azores wine company, it is difficult not to be infected by the enthusiasm of Paulo, António and Filipe (in the entrance photo). Paulo Machado (right, pictured) was born in Faial but assumes himself as picaroto. There he grew up surrounded by vineyards and, better than anyone, knows, feels and understands that unique terroir. Before venturing into this society, he too was, and still is, producer of Insula wines, which were in the cellar with the wines of the Azores Wine Company in joyful harmony. António Maçanita (in the middle, pictured) is also a man of oenology, increasingly passionate about the terroir of the island and the studies of the varieties to which he has dedicated himself in recent years in the Azores. Finally, Filipe Rocha (left, pictured), for many years director of the Hotel School of São Miguel, is in charge of the hotel part. However, everyone does and did everything to start with a project where all the details count.  

In the two days that began to run, there were numerous tests of the variety Arinto dos Açores, Verdelho and Terrantez do Pico. Glasses and more wine glasses paraded on the tables to be tasted, of different varieties, ages, zones and different exhibitions, and also various types of winemaking. A highly didactic exercise, so necessary for those who want to deepen their understanding of these original, fresh and saline wines.

To realize the rarity of these wines it is worth remembering that a vineyard in Pico has very low productions when compared to any other region in the world. Its productivity ranges from 1000 to 2000 kilos per hectare, about a tenth of a region like Champagne and half a third of a region such as Burgundy. Added is the fact that it has one of the most demanding viticultures on the planet, either by driving the vineyard to the ground, or by the impossibility of mechanizing the harvest, and the grapes are harvested manually. It is not surprising that their productions are so limited and expensive for the pocket Portuguese.

Tastings: wines that stand out

If until now the wine of Azores Wine Company Vinha Centenária was one of the most outstanding of the company's wine range, the new 'Vinha dos Utras' is now marking a new milestone. Vinha dos Utras 2019 is born from a vineyard with strains between 60 and 80 years old, acquired in 2018, which began its process of conversion to biological. According to the ancients, "the best vineyards in the Azores are those where you can hear the crab's singing", that is, it is a vineyard that is on the front line, by the sea, at a quota of less than 10 meters. So close, that in 2019, in Storm Lorenzo, 30 meters of vineyards and walls were lost. This vineyard receives more hours of sunshine than the rest, resulting in a higher concentration and a strong mark of maritime presence. The name of the wine comes from the first villager and Captain Donatário of the islands of Faial and Pico, Jos van Hurtere (which in the Portuguese form was called 'Jos de Utra') whose family was crucial in the settlement of these islands and in the development of vines and wine.

Vineyards protected from winds and sea by the corrals
Utras Vineyard
Winemakers António Machado (left) and António Maçanita, in the vineyard
Wine tastings, endless...
Featured wines

Another wine to take off your hat is Terrantez do Pico, a beautiful, vibrant, fresh and saline wine. For many years António Maçanita has been talking about this variety, which for 10 years has given rise to this wine, long before the winery was built. Son of an Azorean father, António has been dedicated to a field of experimentation of this almost extinct caste for more than a decade. Knowing its great potential, he challenged at the time the Agrarian Development Services of São Miguel to produce a wine of the Terrantez do Pico variety in exchange for being able to market 80% of the production. The first Terrantez do Pico, produced in 2010, in a winery with less than 50 m2, soon gave a good result. Enough to later ally with Filipe Rocha and Paulo Machado and found the Azores Wine Company in 2014, in order to continue a work focused on the recovery of indigenous grape varieties and on improving the quality and study of the terroir of azorean vineyards. Thus, far go the times when the Terrantez do Pico variety was in extinction: if it has already been reduced to less than 100 plants, today there are more than 70,000 vines of this autoctonic variety, a return in force and a great victory for the viticulture of the Azores.

In the middle of so much glass that was swirling on the tables, between planned and other unexpected tastings (including some tastings directly from barrels), there was still opportunity to taste the new wines Vinha Centenária 2019 and Canada do Monte 2018 that, like the Vinha dos Utras, are prepared with grapes from vineyards in the Area of Criação Velha – the last nucleus of the old vineyards of Pico.

All these white wines of distinct indigenous varieties, end up being in evidence for different reasons, but there are always some transversal characteristics in these harvests, from the simplest to the most elaborate, that make Azorean wines so special. Above all, its salinity, combined by excellent acidity, elegance and a great balance. Besides, of course, its enormous originality. Those wines we have to taste at least once in our lives.