In the wilderness of the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a quiet wine revolution is unfolding.
Far out in the Atlantic Ocean, between Lisbon and New York, vines grow between cracks in black basalt lava rock on Pico Island.
The best grow near the sea, where the crabs sing, as the local saying goes; this is where there is greater sun exposure, well below the rainy heights of the cloudy volcano of Mount Pico, Portugal’s highest mountain.
Over the past decade, António Maçanita, winemaker at the Azores Wine Company (AWC), has played a key role here, over a thousand kilometers from Portugal’s main wine regions, transforming wine production in the archipelago of Azores.
In an effort to further raise the profile of the company’s wines, Maçanita launched Vinhas dos Utras, one of Portugal’s most expensive still white wines. With a retail price of € 240 ($ 280) a bottle, it’s also AWC’s Maçanita and most expensive wine.
Maçanita produced 1,116 bottles of this wine, the production costs of which, according to the AWC, amount to nearly € 20 per kilo of grape. The white wine is made from Arinto de Azores grapes grown on old vines on the island of Pico.
Maçanita says Vinha dos Utras 2019 shows how the potential of the Azores has now started to manifest. “2019 was the best vintage – the wine shows depth and power.” The elegant wine, made with a low sulfur content, is now distributed mainly to Michelin-starred restaurants and independent wine merchants.
Renaissance of the Azores
After participating in the recovery of the indigenous white grape varieties of the Azores Arinto de Azores, Terrantez de Pico and Verdelho, Maçanita joined forces in 2014 with winemaker Paulo Machado and financial director Felipe Rocha to create the Azores Wine Company.
The company now produces a total of nine wines (four of which have been released this year) with a production of around 100,000 bottles of wine per year – no small feat considering the average yields are of about 1200 kg per hectare in the Azores.
Despite hostile wine-growing and climatic conditions, including humidity, heavy rainfall and low yields, Maçanita was convinced that he could create value by crafting singular high-end wines with a sense of belonging, crafted in a unusual place.
Pico Island is home to the Unesco World Heritage wine site and black basalt stone, once removed in the late Middle Ages to make the volcanic soil fertile, then used to form known dry stone enclosures under the name of currais to protect the vines from strong winds and winter rain. During its pre-phylloxera heyday in the mid-1800s, 10 million liters of wine were produced in the Azores each year. The rapid decline in production then led to state cooperatives in the 1950s, during the Portuguese dictatorship.
When Maçanita first sought to make wine on Pico Island in 2010, producers were selling grapes for € 0.70 per kilo. Since 2014, the average price of grapes on the island has more than quintupled, to € 5 per kilo. If, in 2003, there were around 120 hectares of vines, during the last decade the number of producers on the archipelago has doubled (from 246 in 2012 to 517 in 2019), with nearly 1,000 hectares of vines growing now on the islands..
The Azores Wine Company, which now owns 55 hectares of vines on Pico Island and leases an additional 71 hectares of plots, has reaped the rewards of its efforts to revive local grape varieties, and has shown that it can to make a range of wines that are still unique and racy. wines, which speak of a place.
The rise of still wines from Portugal
While Portugal was once best known for its fortified Port and Madeira wines, it is the country’s graceful and elegant still wines – including Maçanita wines – that capture the world’s attention. Still wines now represent around 65% of the value of Portuguese exports, a market share held 20 years ago by Port exports, according to the national wine promotion agency ViniPortugal.
The Portuguese reds from Douro and Alentejo (Maçanita also produces wines in these regions at Fitapreta and Maçanita Vinhos) are perhaps better known, but Maçanita, a key protagonist in the renaissance of the Azores, showed how a small region Undervalued wine can be transformed to generate value.
Pandemic prices remain a challenge for Portuguese winegrowers, due to the overall quality of wines produced in larger volumes by larger companies, sold at attractive prices. Despite the huge growth in Portuguese still wine exports this year (up 20.3% until May 2021 compared to 2020) and growth in 2020, when wine exports from EU competitors declined , Portugal faces the challenge of increasing low export prices.
In 2020, the average price of Portuguese wines fell by 1.6% to € 2.71 per liter, compared to 2019, according to IVV, the Portuguese Wine and Vine Institute. That said, there is a growing number of premium white wines, made in smaller volumes with retail prices above € 40, in relaunched areas like Bucelas, Colares, Portoalegre in Alentejo and Vinho Verde areas. .
Maçanita, 41, is one of the many young Portuguese winemakers who make graceful, elegant, less oaky wines, with low intervention practices. After having named Maçanita Winemaker of the Year in 2018, the Portuguese wine magazine Revista de Vinhos named in 2020 the Fitapreta de Maçanita estate in Alentejo Producer of the Year. In May this year, the Portuguese newspaper Jornal de Negocios even described Maçanita as “the astronaut of wine”: daring and adventurous, going beyond the key and esteemed wine regions of Portugal of Douro, Alentejo and the Vino Verde.
It could have been a reference to the Azores Wine Company’s new 3 million euro space age winery, which is etched into the lava rock of Pico Island. Opened in June of this year, the sleek, contemporary, slanted structure, designed to retain rainfall, includes accommodation for tourists.
In its quest to create value from lesser-known or undervalued regions, Maçanita has now started producing wine from grapes grown on the Portuguese island of Porto Santo, located next to its larger sister island, Madeira.
In September of this year, Maçanita plans to launch Profetas, (Prophets), a new still white wine made from Listrao Branco (Palomino Fino) grapes, grown on the limestone soils of Porto Santo, where lower acidity levels are a bigger challenge than the precipitation of the Azores. Having first made wine in the Alentejo in the mid-2000s, the island is unlikely to be Maçanita’s final stop on her wine-making journey.
In the spirit of his business in the Azores, which helped place the Azores on the modern wine list, it wouldn’t be surprising if he made wines elsewhere on Europe’s Atlantic front.
In 2019, when Brazilian online wine publication VivaOVinho asked which region he would choose if he had to produce wine outside of Portugal, Maçanita replied: “I really like the air of coastal locations: Muscadet, for example. , is a very interesting wine and much underrated wine, made in an area with great maritime influence – for this reason I could also choose Cape Verde or the Canary Islands; whether they are islands or places near the sea.