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Pico, the Azores: a rare vertical of Czar Licoroso

Fortunato Duarte Garcia

Today I’m off to Oporto to Simplesmente Vinho, a terrific annual artisanal wine fair.  But it doesn’t get more artisanal than Adega Czar, whom I visited at the beginning of this month at the invitation of Fortunato Duarte Garcia. 

The occasion?  Garcia’s first vertical tasting of Adega Czar Vinho Licoroso.  A tasting which is unlikely to be repeated, because he has very few bottles of the older wines.  My picks?  In order of preference the outstanding 1992 and impressive 1970, followed by the 2006, 2011, 1974/75, 2009.

Licoroso wines – a late harvest or fortified style with a minimum of 16% alcohol by volume – have a long tradition on the island.  They were produced in considerable volume in the 18th and 19th century, when they were successfully traded overseas, especially to the USA, Europe and Russia.  According to Garcia, there is a reference to the island’s wine in Tolstoy’s ‘War & Peace’ (a point to verify when I have a moment!) and on the menu for a Banquete Grão Mestre Ordem de Malta from 1797, which mentions two styles of licoroso  – Pico Secco (dry) and Pico Amoroso (sweet).  He believes that, originally, either style would have been unfortified and, only recently have they been fortified (though views differ).

Faial built its wealth on a harbour which could service the trans-Atlantic trading ships

In 1850, mildew and oidium then, in 1872, phylloxera devastated the fretwork of walled vineyards which dominate Pico’s western coastline.  Largely phylloxera-resistant American vines were planted instead of Arinto dos Acores, Terrantez do Pico and Verdelho – the quality vitis vinifera grapes which had made the island’s acclaimed licorosos.  Unlike Madeira, Pico’s wine industry never recovered from this triple whammy.  Garcia speculates it is because, being based on the island of Faial, not Pico, the vineyards’ original owners – wealthy merchants – were divorced from the land and did not have the same emotional connection with it.

Instead, those Pico islanders who had tended the vineyards looked to the surrounding ocean’s oil-rich resource of sperm whales for income.  Vineyards and the licoroso tradition were neglected as barrels of whale oil, not wine, became the island’s stock in trade. In fact, Garcia’s grandfather was a whaler and owned 15% of the whale factory (now whaling museum) in São Roque (pictured).

From whales to wine

Czar’s founder José Duarte Garcia

Garcia’s father, José Duarte, lasted just a month at the whale factory.  He preferred to study and became a teacher.  Like most islanders, he made table wine on the side for family and friends.  The shift to making licoroso wine came about in the 1960s, after José Duarte was offered a two hectare vineyard in Criação Velha, (where he was teaching).  Located close to the sizeable town of Madalena, Criação Velha has among Pico’s oldest surviving vines. He paid 1000 escudos for it – around five Euros in today’s money.  The way Fortunato presents it, the neighbour pestered his father to buy it because he knew his offspring wouldn’t take care of it.  Mentored by the previous owner (and armed with some winemaking books), José Duarte then started to make licoroso wine from the Criação Velha vineyard.

Criação Velha above the vineyards; below is the Atlantic

Originally, nothing was bottled, though Fortunato has one of the 5 litre jugs that his father saved for each of his three children. Pointing to “a very strong tradition of adega dinner parties,” Fortunato observed “most of the wine that he produced was drank with his family and friends.” But after José Duarte read about the discovery of Pico wine in the last Czar’s cellars, he decided that “Czar” would be the perfect name for his wine and, from 1970, bottled his licoroso under the Czar brand.

Garcia prepares our fish broth in the adega kitchen

Early bottles were re-purposed.  Fortunato fondly recalled trawling the island’s restaurants and bars on a hunt for enough bottles of the same shape each year.  As you can see from the photo below, the tasting featured flute-shaped, Bordeaux and squatter Port bottles.  Useful aide memoires about the year of production given that the vintage was not printed on labels until 2000 (though the young Garcia used to note the vintage on his own bottles).  José Duarte sold to tourists and visitors to the island.  However, because he was teaching full-time, he only had time to cultivate a little over half of the vineyard; winemaking was “more of a hobby than a business,” said his son.

Fortunato started to make wine with his dad in 1989, after he finished university.  He took over after his father passed away in 2007.  As with his father (and many islanders), winemaking has remained a part-time job.  In Fortunato’s younger days, he was one of the island’s two professional divers.  Today, his ‘proper’ job is teaching information technology, though he has run bars and played in bands (and still).

Atlantic waves crash onto the rocks a stone’s throw from Czar’s vineyard

Over the years, the operation has become bigger and more professional.  Production has grown because, around twenty years ago, they found a good worker who recuperated the rest of the original vineyard – the youngest part, closest to the ocean. Fully exposed to (and sometimes drenched by the Atlantic), Fortunato told me “we planted Arinto dos Açores because it is more resistant to the bad weather and the ocean mist.” 

Fortunato has since acquired another 1.3ha – two vineyards contiguous to the original two hectares and another one 500 metres away.  He is trying to buy another two hectares (currently neglected and overgrown).  With only 200 vines of Terrantez do Pico in the original plot, the producer is planting more because, he says, “it’s our grape.”

Neglected vineyards

Untrained in winemaking, Fortunato picked up about it on the job with his father and ”learned a lot”  visiting other Portuguese producers. Though he said“if it’s completely natural [with no fortification or sulphur to halt the ferment], it is hard to find a line,” he is strongly of the opinion that Pico Licoroso should be about “salt, acidity, and never too much sugar….they [Czar wines] all have lot of acidity and none a lot of sugar, with our grapes [Arinto dos Acores, Terrantez do Pico and Verdelho] in all of them.”

A wine forged by the Atlantic

To qualify for DOP status, licoroso wines must be:

  • made from Verdelho, Arinto dos Açores or Terrantez do Pico (or a blend of all three)
  • have a minimum of 16% alcohol by volume; and
  • be aged for a minimum of 3 years in wood.

Maximum yields are 50hl/ha but good luck with that on Pico’s poor soils and wind blasted vineyards!   Garcia tells me his yields range from 5 to 10hl/ha, depending on the year.  Producers must have a minimum of 5hl minimum of wine to certify.

As for Czar’s production, Fortunato remembers that his father made 1000 bottles of the 2002 harvest. Prior to that year, it was only around a few hundred bottles. Today, he produces between 2000 to 3000 bottles per year.

Czar now has distributors on the islands of Faial, Terceira and São Miguel as well as on the mainland, in Lisbon and Porto. He sells directly to individuals in many other countries, mostly central Europe, but also Canada, USA and China.

The vineyards

“Afraid” he says “to wait for the grapes”, most producers harvest at the beginning of September, whilst Garcia – who only makes licoroso wine – usually harvests after 15th September.  Ideally, he is looking for a potential alcohol of 19 or 20%.

Garcia harvests in two stages.  Since he is the last to harvest, he has no difficulty hiring the 20 pickers it takes to do this back-breaking work.  First off the vine is the Terrantez do Pico and Verdelho, which are first to mature. Half of the fruit is raisins and the balance of grapes are already brown. The second harvest is to try and get more sugar content in the grapes, though there tends not to be much raisined fruit in the last pick.

Winemaking

In line with production, the adega is tiny.  Behind the public space – a barrel cum tasting room (pictured) – it is readily apparent that Garcia is a man of many hats and hobbies.  A small kitchen area attests to the adega dinner party culture.  The fermentation/pressing area is home to a drum kit (Garcia is in a band).  Fishing and diving kit abounds, including these fearsome crocodile jaw-like cutters (to behead conger eels which, I’m told, you don’t want live on deck).

 

The grapes are pressed in a basket press, then naturally fermented before going to seasoned barrels of French oak (220l) and one 225l chesnut barrel.  In the past, old Scotch Whisky barrels were used too (but they are no longer available on the island).

Since neither Fortunato nor his father ever fortified Czar, the resulting style (sweetness level) is simply a product of the vintage.  It’s why, he said, each vintage is different and, in some years (e,g, 2012, 2010) quality is not up to scratch for Czar.  Fortunato is planning to make angelíca in weak harvests.

Once in barrel, Garcia does not top up.  Initially, José Duarte aged the wines for one to two years in barrel, then three years.  Since 2008, Fortunato has aged them for six years in barrel “because we noted that, with more years, the wine would gain richness in the nose and in flavor. I had good harvests in 2006 and 2007 which allowed me to delay the bottling of the 2008 and increase the years of aging.” 

Humidity is good (always around 70%) but the cellar is warm.  The winemaker estimates that each barrel loses around 20-30 litres to evaporation – the so-called ‘angel’s share.’  Since 2007, when he has used brand new clear bottles, Fortunato has cold settled the wines to precipitate tartrates.

The tasting

Garcia is very proud that his wines are the only commercial examples on the island not to be fortified or sulphured to arrest the fermentation process.  In fact, his principal motivation for the event was to demonstrate that non-fortified wines have the capacity to age – “they can hold themselves,” he said.  As you’ll see from my note on the oldest example – the 1970 – Q.E.D.

Vis a vis residual sugar levels, Garcia advised that the 2004 had 58g/l and one of the barrels of the 2008 had 68g/l, but these would be at the top end of the sweetness spectrum.  The typical range for pH is between 3.4 and 3.8, total acidity 6 to 7g/l, alcohol 18% to 19% abv and residual sugar 19 to 35g/l.

The wines were opened the day before the tasting to check for any faults, then re-stoppered.  I asked Garcia how he would classify the wines adopting the old classifications of secco and amoroso.  He replied “I would definitely say that the 2006, the 2000 and the 1990 are amoroso. The 1992 was close and the 1974 also, but they were dry as well as all the others.” 

 

Czar 2011 (barrel sample)

The first flight – marked colour differences indicate the variability of vintage

This barrel sample is a blend of Verdelho, Arinto dos Acores, Terrantez do Pico from a very good vintage.  Garcia reckons he picked the first tranche of grapes on 16th September and the second on 23rd (when the balance had attained more sugar).  It’s a light tawny hue with green glints.  A nuanced nose has notes of hops (floral), malt, tobacco, honey and smoke.  Notes which follow through on a finely honed palate with a lovely backbone of acidity.  When you think about the raisined grapes, this wine’s delicacy, freshness and structure are deeply impressive.  Going through, the acidity gathers momentum; the perception of freshness is heightened by a pronounced saltiness – sea salt flakes, I fancy, such is their piquancy and freshness with density – to borrow from John Szabo MS, “weightless gravity.”  Long, quite savoury and dry with penetrating acidity and salt and tobacco riffs which crash around the back palate.  Garcia reckons this wine weighs in at a little over 18% and has “over 20g/l and almost certainly below 30g/l residual sugar.”  Very good.

Czar Verdelho, Arinto dos Acores, Terrantez do Pico Seco 2009 DOP Pico

An atypical (seco) licoroso wine with just 6g/l of residual sugar and 20.1% alcohol by volume.  Quite something for an unfortified wine.  The island’s native yeasts would seem to be as stubborn and hardworking as its inhabitants! I tasted this wine with Garcia last October when it seemed more precise.  Perhaps it’s about the comparison with the 2011, whose delicacy stands out.  The 2009 is a markedly deeper tawny hue, still with a green tinge.   The alcohol makes for something of a powerhouse after the 2011 and I wonder if it leached more oak?  I pick up notes of buttered popcorn, creamed corn, roasted nuts and a smokier quality.  The alcohol is assertive, both in its drive, mouthfeel (bigger) and warmth.  The saltiness is a constant, though here it is more savoury – positively kelpy.  Powerful stuff.  20.1%

Czar Verdelho, Arinto dos Acores, Terrantez do Pico Meio Seco 2006 VLQPRD Pico

The ‘L’ in VLQPRD denotes a Licoroso wine (the DOP designation for quality wines came in from 2010).  The 2006 is a bright, orangey amber hue with floral notes – jasmine, rice wine and wheatgerm – to nose and caramelised (still fresh) orange palate.  With around 32-35g/l residual sugar the mouthfeel is rounder – gentler, even a little marrowy, but the saltiness creeps in going through and a gentle but persistent wash of pebbly acidity makes for a long, subtle finish with hints of tobacco.  Lovely delicacy and persistence. 17.5%

Czar Verdelho, Arinto dos Acores 2000 VLQPRD Pico

Deep amber, quite beefy, a little green on the nose, with bone meal and mouldy orange peel notes which follow through on a savoury palate with fat chesnut, marrow fat peas, café crème and a smokiness that builds on the finish.  The bone meal note blows off a bit when I go back to this wine part way through but, by the end of the tasting, this bouillon, smoky, umami character dominates.  Drying out.  18.5%

Czar Genuno Verdelho 1998 VLQPRD Pico

Fortunato said that his father was forbidden from using the phrase Genuno.  Rightly, I reckon, because though the island’s licoroso’s were labelled ‘Pico Verdelho,’ all three grapes were most likely used and Arinto dos Acores is by far and away Pico’s dominant vitis vinifera variety.  The ’98 looks a little darker and browner than the 2000. It has a savoury, vegetal nose, again quite marrow and very smoky with that pronounced umami/bouillon character.  This vintage is also markedly salty, with assertive mineral acidity and, going through, a woody, rancio note to the finish.  Going back at the end, the bouillon character dominates, resulting in a dull, bitter, dry finish.  18.5%

Czar Genuno Verdelho 1992 VLQPRD Pico

A golden tawny hue with a delicate yet involving nose – perfumed and harmonious – with vegetal and lifted tobacco hints, a sense of fruit still (which was lacking in the 2000 & 98), together with a marked saltiness.  In the mouth, it has a sweetness – caramelised oranges and a hint of spicy fruit chutney – which is deftly balanced and teased out by this wine’s salty, rolling acidity.  Delicate riffs of jasmine, camomile and tobacco add nuance and lift.   Going back the harmoniousness and persistence impresses – a woody note which slightly marred the finish has gone, instead replaced by a lick of toasted almonds.  Best of all, its sense of place shines through strongly thanks to its rock salt and kelp inflected lingering acidity.  Terrific. 18.5%

Czar Genuno Verdelho 1990 VLQPRD Pico

The 90’s flight

Again, sugar seems to act as the ultimate preservative, though I find this vintage a touch diffuse – much less structured or nuanced than the ’92.  It reveals a round nose and palate with caramelised oranges and a distinct salt caramel edge, though the finish has a more mineral saltiness.  Going back at the end, a touch of varnishy, nutty oak comes through; still a little soft and sweet for me, which makes it a tad dull.  But nonetheless, it is admirably preserved!  18.5%

Czar  Genuno Verdelho 1988 VLQPRD Pico

An amber hue with lots of bouillon.  But I also sense a tomato plant firmness ( greenness and structure) and (nose-tickling) bracing acidity.  In the mouth, it is quite dry and sherried, with a dusty, impure finish.  Drying out, one is left with the tomato plant stem and assertive acidity, which makes for a very austere palate. At the end, it has become more savoury and bitter.  This bottle is past it.

Czar Genuno Verdelho early 80s? VLQPRD Pico

Between 1980-84, corks were covered with wax, which dates this bottle to the early 80s.  A sweeter example, again better preserved for it, with traces of caramelised oranges, orange barely water (a light vegetal, hoppy note) and a saltiness, which pushes through and lends piquancy and life.  The acidity is a steady hand at the tiller.  This is a more consensual wine; a little soft and lacking structure for my palate.  But still conversational.

Czar Pico Genuno Verdelho 1974/75? VLQPRD Pico

Last flight in the foreground – how pale is the 1970?!?

Bottled in a Port bottle with string to the capsules dates this to 1974/75, says Garcia.  It’s a bright tawny hue with an intriguing, complex nose and palate with layers of salt, citrus/dried herbs (lemon verbena?), caramelised oranges and maple syrup – in the  sweeter, softer, amoroso spectrum but this vintage has the acidity to animate and extend the palate. At the end it is holding up very well, still with plenty of complexity and a smooth but not too smooth lemon and honey lozenge character.  Very good.

Czar Genuno 1970 VLQPRD Pico

The gold capsule and, it might be said the gold standard!  We were honoured to share this rare bottle – the first labelled Czar (Garcia has just 3 bottles left).  It’s a tawny hue with green glints.  A salty nose initially has some less attractive varnishy wood and bonemeal notes.  But these dissipate with time and air.  In the mouth, it’s as if the salty ocean – a.k.a. this wine’s salty acidity – has cleansed the palate.  It is very balanced, with a mineral purity and firmness – tomato plant greenness, but without the austerity or meaness.  Rather, lingering tobacco and café crème notes bring lift and a delicate sweetness.  Holding together and how! At the very end, it remained firm but balanced, still remarkably persistent.

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