Ξ March 5th, 2010 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, PORTUGAL, Technology, Wine History, Winemakers |
The volcanic islands of Graciosa, Pico, and Terceira, specifically the parish of Biscoitos, are the demarcated wine regions of the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago just over 900 miles from the mainland. Legally recognized in 1994, each area has, nevertheless, been producing wine for hundreds of years. The vines are grown in the near complete absence of soil and sheltered from the wind and salt water by walls of broken basalt painstakingly built over the centuries. The ’soils’, slowly in the process of creation (globally, depending upon a series of site-specific geo-physical processes, the generation of an inch of soil requires many thousands of years), may be broadly divided into two types: shattered, heavily fissured basalt and a slightly looser, sandy version, its additional material largely water runoff and wind transported. This is most strikingly revealed on Pico where the vineyards come within yards of the open Atlantic. Coaxing vines into healthy production in either matrix is nothing short of miraculous.
I will have much to say on another occasion about all of the above. For now I want only to touch on the narrow dimension of Biscoitos’ private bottle label art, this after a few preliminaries.
The agricultural center of Terceira, this small town is home to S.D.A.T., the Adega do Servico de Desenvolvimento Agrario de Terceira (the cellar of Agrarian Development Service), the wine-making cooperative where, upon deplaning at Lajes Airport, we were taken by winery representative, António Espínola.
Producing over 40,000 liters of wine per annum off of 60 hectares, the local economy of Biscoitos, the wine sector, took a severe hit in the aftermath of the terrorist attack of 9/11. All the islands did. With new international airline regulations banning all liquid containers with volumes in excess of 4 oz. from being carried onto airplanes, the many thousands of tourists visiting Terceira each year went from purchasing multiple bottles of wine to buying just one now secured in checked baggage. Wine sales plummeted 50% throughout the archipelago and the sector has still not recovered. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the wines’ price points, as our soulless business language puts it. Indeed, given the extraordinary labor required to work with all the elements of the archipelago’s harsh terroir, it is stunning to see any Azores wine sold locally for as little as €10. With sinew and muscle, the farmer’s near indestructible will to go on restores to respectability the idea of hand-crafted, a notion rather limply exploited in American wine marketing, for example. Further, the oft-repeated promotional concept of how inexpensive are Portugal’s wines in general, fails miserably to grasp that it is rather a question of a sustainable price. No better example of this critical distinction may be found than on the Azores.
It has become more urgent than ever, especially in light of reduced tourist numbers in these sour economic times, to find a way to lessen the great downward pricing pressure and get the many fascinating wines of the Azores into the international market at a fair, sustainable price.
Like all the demarcated regions of the Azores, grape growing on Biscoitos is suffering from a generational shift. No longer willing to struggle for a living in the same way as their parents and grandparents have, the young are increasingly drawn to cities. To be sure, it is a pattern repeated in all agricultural sectors throughout the world. But in the Azores it is painfully evident, the abandoned vineyards immediately visible as overrun thatches of tangled flora. The disruption of traditional family practice is a very real threat to the long-term survival of this viticulture unique in all the world.
While at the cooperative, we were given precious insight into Biscoitos’ recent vinous history. Located within an older portion of the adega, António showed us what qualifies as their ‘wine library, a wall of honeycombed masonry (situated at the right in the photo). From the rough, abrasive chambers, an echo of the vineyards’ basaltic walls just outside, he pulled bottle after intriguing bottle of private wines, some made before the existence of the cooperative. As a tribute to the farmers and vintners of these mysterious verdelhos, the dominant white grape throughout the Azores, I will close this post with their simple, mute images.
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