Azores Wine Company: vertical tasting, vertical growth
Some turn over a new leaf, others – notably the Azores Wine Company – turn over vineyards, entire regions even. Check out these aerial shots of vineyards which they are reclaiming in Pico, the Azores.
And here are some photos from my October visit, when I witnessed this staggering renaissance first hand – a huge amount of recovery work has gone on since my first trip in 2014.
Once trees are felled, they are burned and the roots injected with poison. American (vine) rootstock is then planted and will be grafted to local varieties. Currais walls are restored to protect the vines from the wind and to retain warmth to aid ripening. A big job of work.
As for the revolution in wine quality, that 2014 visit introduced me to my first glimpse of the Azorean island’s huge potential for table wines in the shape of Fita Preta Antonio Maçanita Signature Series Arinto do Açores 2013.
Maçanita since joined forces with fellow winemaker and grape grower Paulo Machado of Insula Vinhos and Filipe Rocha (then Head of the Azores’ School of Tourism and Hospitality Training) to create Azores Wine Company’s mushrooming portfolio of wines – sparkling and still, white, rose and red and licoroso – from a fast growing patchwork of vineyards.
When you make a call about the quality of a wine or region with no track record to speak of, it’s always a relief to see it fly. And to review the wines and see how they age. So I was delighted that Azores Wine Company organised a vertical tasting for me. And even more thrilled by the results.
By way of background, the very first wine – the 2010 Terrantez – was made on São Miguel at, by all accounts, a rather un-prepossessing basic winery. Latterly wines have been made at co-founder Paulo Machado’s winery.
Originally built around Insula’s capacity (Machado’s 8ha in Sao Mateus), it has tripled in size to try and keep pace with the company’s 20ha of grower sourced fruit.
Looking ahead, plans are underway to build a 200t capacity winery with tasting room from scratch in the heart of one the company’s new plantations – 31ha which it recently acquired and is recovering and replanting in Bandeiras.
It will overlook the crashing surf, while Monte do Pico looms large behind it. Like the currais – the dry stone walls which surround the vineyards – the facade will be composed of black basalt so that it is an unobtrusive presence.
The Azores Wine Company has also rented another 35ha in Sao Mateus (Vinhas das Casas), of which it has recovered and replanted 20ha thus far. As you can see, it’s a dazzling mosaic of currais.
Although both terroir and variety were articulated loud and clear in the vertical, the impact of vintage is readily apparent too. For Maçanita, it’s all about the weather – especially when it comes to production. The wind can play havoc at flowering, scything yields. Take 2016, when production was down 70%!
While 2015 was a very clean year (and the first when the company managed all their vineyards), in 2014 there was lots of botrytis. In greener years, Maçanita reckons sparkling is a good tool, while riper years like 2015 are good for licorosos (which Azores Wine Company fortify).
For him, this approach – working with a range of styles with the flexibility to best express what the vintage delivers – bears no little comparison with that of the Loire’s Chenin Blanc producers. Which is interesting when you consider that Maçanita’s research suggests Verdelho may be related to Chenin.
You’ll find my notes on the vertical below. I subsequently tasted tank and barrel samples at the winery (2016 whites and reds, 2015 reds and licoroso barrels) which looked promising. It was fun to taste the difference between 4 Verdelhos – two from Pico, 1 from Sao Miguel and 1 from Graciosa island, the latter with striking minerality and palate presence – characteristics I noticed when I visited the island’s Co-operative on the same trip.
The company have made Syrahs in 2015 and 2016 which, unsurprisingly, were both sappy and herbaceous – quite slight. Ones to review once bottled, though I have to admit I’m much more excited about the native grapes, especially the white wines.
Watch out for my upcoming Decanter feature on the rise of the Azores for an insight into the archipelago’s winemaking tradition and those producers who are making the running. It will also include tips on where to stay and eat in this must visit destination for lovers of nature, food and wine.
Fita Preta Antonio Macanita Signature Series Terrantez do Pico Espumante Extra Brut 2011
Disgorged a year ago this was an experiment for fun. One which has turned out rather well. It starts off quite Champagne-like – firm, dry, with a good attack and biscuity autolytic note. But it’s not long before the varietal and Azorean traits take hold of the palate, revealing great intensity of brine and kelp/iodine. A touch of tomato plant too. Great structure, with a firm, well focused mineral finish.
Azores Wine Company Arinto do Acores Espumante Extra Brut 2014
Displays the honeyed (botrytis) character of the year with a beam of pure citrus – lemon/waxy lemon peel – on the attack, with salt/saltbush notes – a real taste of the sea. As it opens up, the minerality become more pronounced. With a fine if not especially persistent bead, texture and palate presence, it’s quite vinous in character. Very true to the region and the grape.
Azores Wine Company Antonio Macanita Verdelho Original 2014 (IG Acores)
“Original” is a reference to Maçanita’s finding that the first citation of ‘Verdelho’ (a reference to its presence in the Azores) pre-dates that of Madeira by some 200 years, even though some say Verdelho originated from Madeira. Pale golden yellow (that vintage character again) with a classically fruity nose and palate, gentler acidity and a rounder mid-palate – good mouthfeel and density – than Arinto dos Acores. Going through, subtle vegetal, rock salt and earthy saltbush characters build. There’s a touch of resin to the finish and an incipiently nutty savouriness. 1,400 bottles 13%
Azores Wine Company Antonio Macanita Verdelho Original 2015 (DOC Pico)
A brighter, juicier more lifted profile than the 2014, with a perfumed nose with cardomom, cucumber and succulent green tropical plant/fruit notes which follow through on a savoury, dry, textural (leesy/marrow fat) palate with a touch of spice and nuttiness just starting to develop. Good fruit weight, but lighter on its feet than the 2014. 4,382 bottles 13%
Fita Preta Antonio Macanita Signature Series Arinto dos Acores 2013 (DOC Pico)
This was the first of Maçanita’s wines which I tasted. As you’d expect, two years on, it’s less tightly wound and linear. But no less striking for that. Straw-coloured, the 2013 has become spicier, with curry leaf accents, while the acidity is rounder, more succulent and the citrus notes waxier and a touch exotic – a little reminiscent of grilled lime. The saltbush piquancy and minerality – now a touch basalt and earthier – remain a prominent feature. A lingering, lively rock salt studded finish has a cheesy, tangy (in a nice savoury way) acidity. Very good. 1,560 bottles. 13.5%
Azores Wine Company Arinto dos Acores Antonio Macanita 2014 (DOC Pico)
Deeper yellow/gold with an intense nose and palate of spicy citrus – grapefruit pith and orange peel and dried honey. It’s just starting to develope a waxy quality/texture. Here the salty notes are less piquant – more salt flakes. The minerals sandier, more crystalline than earthier basalt. Finishes salty and long (albeit without the drive of the 2013), with curry leaf and crushed coriander seed spice. 3,300 bottles. 13%
Azores Wine Company Arinto dos Acores Antonio Macanita 2015 (DOC Pico)
The 2015 seems to sit mid-way between the 2013 and 2014. It has ripe, spicy, exotic citrus fruit – grilled lime, pink grapefruit and pineapple, with notes of orange peel, kaffir lime, fennel and curry leaf. The acidity, with its tang of earthy, basalt minerals – washes over the palate, which finishes with a lick of salt. Good; just opening up. 5,048 bottles. 13%
Azores Wine Company Arinto dos Açores Sur Lies António Maçanita 2014 (DOC Pico)
The second pressings are included in this Sur Lies cuvée – “I thought use them for more body, but it also emphasises terroir,” said Maçanita. It’s a marvellous wine, with layer upon layer – a prism – of minerality. The flavour profile within that is very consistent with the grape and the year, with its rich, honeyed just ripe pineapple (the year), firm, long, incisive citric (lemony) backbone and hint of curry leaf. The earthy mineral note to the finish is saltier in expression – briny in character. Super length and intensity. Great finesse. 1,600 bottles 13%
Azores Wine Company Arinto dos Acores Sur Lies António Maçanita 2015 (DOC Pico)
The 2015 is more tightly wound, its beam of fresh (lemony) citrus striated with sea salt flakes. It gives this wine a crystalline textural quality. A very subtle vegetal/herbal edge (lemon barley water/curry leaf) lends nuance. An energetic finish is firm, very focused; great length. Impressive. 2,495 bottles. 13%
Azores Wine Company Vinha Centenaria 2015 (DOC Pico)
This cuvée comes from a single centenarian parcel (a field blend of roughly 90% Arinto dos Acores, with other varieties), which is owned by a descendant of Pico’s first Flemish settlers. It takes ‘tightly wound’ to another level. A tight, perfumed, mineral, very stony, slatey nose with quince, which follows through in the mouth, together with steely grapefruit, slate and apple sauce. Breathtaking sorbet-like clarity and penetration with a long, expressive finish. And yet it’s so tightly corseted – the fruit firmly clasped. A 2016 tank sample blew me away too. 1,100 bottles. 13%
Fita Preta Signature Series Terrantez do Pico Antonio Macanita 2010 (VR Acores)
This was Maçanita’s first Azorean wine. Though his grandmother comes from the central Azores and he was a regular visitor to the archipelago, he had no clue about its potential for making quality table wines. The opportunity to explore it came about when he found out about a project to recover local grapes lead by Engª Susana Mestre and supported by the Regional Secretariat for Natural Resources. In 2010 Macanita produced this Terrantez do Pico to test the grape’s potential and convince producers to plant it despite the health and ripening issues which had lead to it being abandoned (prior to Mestre’s project, Terrantez do Pico was on the brink of extinction, with only 89 known producing vines). Suffice to say that the project has worked. Not only in São Miguel (Mestre’s plantation is at the Agricultural Department in Ponta Delgada) which has seen more Terrantez do Pico planted, but also in Pico where growers are keen to embrace the variety which bears their island’s name. The soils in Ponta Delgada could not be more different from Pico. The island is much greener and the older soils potassium rich and fertile. At six years old, this maiden vintage displays lots of tertiary complexity to the nose with dried spices, tobacco, wood polish/beeswax and dried lavender. Yet in the mouth it is surprisingly fresh, still well structured, dry and mineral with fennel seed and herbes de Provence riffs. With a persistent finish and good line, it’s still got gas in the tank. Very good. 13.5%
Fita Preta Signature Series Terrantez do Pico Antonio Macanita 2011 (VR Acores)
Thirty percent of this wine was aged in new French oak and it is nuttier and particularly spicy, not just with oak spice, but also lifted carraway and curry powder and more pungent fenugreek. Fusel notes which blow off with time in glass. The tobacco notes I found in the 2010 sing out – here sweeter café crème. There’s an edge of greener tomato plant and fennel seed too. Great line and length, the tensile finish sluiced with mineral acidity. 12.5% 602 bottles.
Azores Wine Company Terrantez do Pico Antonio Macanita 2014 (VR Acores)
Twenty five percent of this wine was aged in French oak for 9 months with batonnage. This vintage has been held back and it does seem out of whack, query faulty with animal notes and a soapy, slide off the palate quality. Nowhere near as penetrating or lingering as the others. I can understand why Maçanita is uncertain about this vintage. 330 bottles 12.5%
Azores Wine Company Terrantez do Pico António Maçanita 2015 (VR Acores)
With 1,413 bottles, 2015 produced the biggest crop yet. The grapes were flown from Ponta Delgada to Faial then “shipped” to Pico. Assistant winemaker Cátia Laranjo, who joined the company that vintage, told me that the complications continued in the winery – the ferment was slow to take hold and the wine took time to pull itself together. Well, it’s no 2014. I found it very balanced and, based on the 2010 and 2011, consistent in character. This is a singular, very complex wine thoroughly sluiced with minerals, green tropical, pink grapefruit and ponzu notes to the spicy, white pepper-laced mid-palate and briny, tide well saltiness, which builds slowly then lingers long on the crystalline finish. Terrific presence. Twenty five percent of this wine was aged in French oak for 9 months with batonnage. 12.5%
Azores Wine Company Vulcanico Rosé 2015 (VR Acores)
The Vulcanico range is the Azores Wine Company’s entry level label. This pale rosé is a multi-varietal blend sourced from a dozen or so different growers because, said Maçanita, “what’s special is not the grapes but where the wine comes from.” Whole bunch pressed and, after natural racking, fermented in small 600 to 1000l stainless steel tanks, it undergoes lees-stirring which imparts a creaminess to its delicate raspberry/red berry and currant fruit. Subtle orange peel, milk chocolate and tobacco notes filter through on the back palate. Good persistence with a warm stone tang of minerality to the finish. 6,500 bottles; 300 magnums. 12.5%
Azores Wine Company Vulcanico Red 2014 (VR Acores)
A blend of Aragonês, Agronómica, Castelão, Malvarisco, Merlot, Touriga Nacional, Saborinho, Syrah and others sourced from some six growers. Unoaked, it has very buoyant aromas of spice, pepper and peony – rather Beaujolais. But the palate is drier than the nose suggests, with orange peel, tomato plant and tomato paste notes – some under-ripeness. “I’m telling you,” says Maçanita, “this is what happens with the reds here….you have to accept it. In 2014, it was rain, rain, rain, rain. Yes you can crop thin, but we don’t want to try and be something we are not and bring an Alentejo philosophy to the wines here.” 12.5%
Azores Wine Company Vulcanico Red 2015 (VR Acores)
The strength of the 2015 vintage shows in this wine’s better balance. There’s enough juice and creamy flesh to the mid-palate which, combined with Vulcanico’s finely tuned Azorean acidity, shows off the details to good advantage. Both nose and palate are delightfully laced with peppery spice and piquant salty notes. Nice persistence. 12.5%
Azores Wine Company Saborinho Tinto 2015 (VR Acores)
From the Rare Grapes Collection Black Label I like this, the first 100% Saborinho wine, very much. Saborinho is the same variety as Madeira’s Tinta Negra, but I’ve not tasted such an intense or interesting example from that island. This pale ruby Saborinho – 90% of which comes from Pico, 10% from São Miguel, has a complex perfume to nose and palate of dried kirsch, jewel-bright pomegranate, pomegranate pith, orange peel, sweet hay and bitter chocolate, which combine to give an attractively medicinal note. Firm, crunchy acidity makes for a leanish palate, but it has no shortage of flavour intensity or persistence. Lovely wine. 12.5%
Azores Wine Company Isabella a Proibida 2015
Maçanita was mustard keen to make a sophisticated take on the archipelago’s simple Vinho dos Cheiro (“scented wine”) after drinking rather too much of it. The concept is to maintain this traditional festival wine’s drinkability and this unoaked red certainly has a soft, yielding character and a sweetness to its squishy canned strawberry fruit. Despite the black pepper, hints of tomato plant, resin and smoke, good acidity too, it’s a bit too sweet for me. Sourced from old field blend vineyards, it is principally (if not entirely) made from the American grape varieties (notably Isabella). They have dominated the archipelago ever since phylloxera wiped out most of the vitis vinfera vines (and with them, the islands’ valuable trade in “mock Madeira”). 1.786 bottles. 11.9%
Azores Wine Company 10 Year Old Verdelho Licoroso
The company has been buying as many barrels of mature Verdelho licoroso wine as it can find. Although there had been plans to release a 1990 colheita, in the end note was taken of Ricardo Diogo of Madeira’s Vinhos Barbeito’s advice “don’t blow it all at once…” Hence this first release – a non-vintage blend, averaging 10.3 years old.
It is the ruddy hue of black tea with typical Verdelho fruity spicy chutney and smoky guava notes to the nose and palate. Toasted nuts, café crème and honeycake speak of wood ageing. A protruding, rather bracing backbone of searing acidity makes for a drier, bonier finish than I might otherwise have expected, cut with pithy grapefruit marmalade and whiffs of kelp and sulphur. Its leaness compared with Verdelhos from Madeira suggests it is older. But I suspect the acidity will make for a long lived wine. I subsequently tasted this wine blind alongside 10 Year Old Verdelho Madeiras from Blandys, Henriques & Henrique, Barbeito and Justinos – an interesting exercise. Its kelpiness and dryness stood out, but also an oakiness/woodiness (coconut?) alongside the others which I’d not noticed the previous day, on first taste. Love the taste of the Atlantic and acid drive; shame the wood is a bit distracting.