I was not prepared at all for what was before me. It was mouth dropping and left me wondering why I had never explored this option. At the last minute, I decide to go to the Azores- they were open to US travelers and only 4.5 hours off the coast. I wanted to see and learn about the Sperm whales that found this volcanic nine island archipelago’s deep waters a welcoming home port from the notorious northern Atlantic. I could have gone whale watching everyday…. but Mother Nature, also handles the gale force winds and weather had other plans for me.
I arrived on Terceira with the winds whipping and bouncing our prop plane along. But like all maritime climates the sun pushed on through as the winds subsided. What it exposed was black and green – totally black volcanic rock is everywhere even the streets are Basalt bricks with the white limestone ballast cut to decorate the sidewalks in a multitude of patterns. Then the green was so amazing and lush, even surpassing Irish green. It was impossible for me to stay inside and not explore this island and the hub, Angra do Heroismo, even in the mists.
Each step led me to more and more – the history was fascinating taking you from Vasco de Gama to other men and women of courage. You have to remember this is literally a spot in the north Atlantic thousands of miles from anywhere else. The actual land mass of the Azores is about the size of tiny Luxembourg divided into nine scattered volcanic mountain peaks that have pushed above the sea and are still slowly growing. There are still gurgling vents of steam proving the earth is alive.
The climate here is very unique – one interesting fact is the Azores never experienced the ice age. The Gulfstream provides an amazing climate – there is no need for central heating as they have never recorded frost on the island and the only snow is on the highest peak of Pico. Year round temperatures range from 50 to 72 and almost always has a wonderful breeze. Meteorologist call the Azores, a subtropical oceanic climate. Many call it the Hawaiian Islands of the Atlantic and yes, I can see that – as the mountain peaks trap the clouds and keep everything moist – even the forests look like rainforests in the tropics. Plus the Gulfstream which swings by here on its way to Ireland, brings warmer seas and all the nutrients, huge planktonic blooms and krill creating a very fertile oasis for all the migrating whales.
There is a profusion of flowers year round. The further I went around the islands the more astounding it became –it was like being in a magical park but with a lot of cows. There is one cow for every two inhabitants and 75% of them are for dairy…. Yes, cheese is big here and they have their own DOP designation. Probably the best-known Azorean cheese, São Jorge cheese is named for the small island of São Jorge where it’s produced. Also called Queijo da Ilha (“cheese of the island”), it’s a semi-hard raw cow’s milk cheese. Their cheeses are exported to mainland Portugal, Europe and to Portuguese communities here in the US.
The more that I explored the more my focus changed, I was astounded that these island are self-sufficient, not just producing or harvesting their food but also they are energy self-sufficient with wind, solar and geothermal power.
Dining on the Azores was another surprise – the food was fabulous, they have their own specialties and pretty much everything comes from the islands. With this rich volcanic soil they grow all their vegetables, raise all the animals. Which led me tasting wonderful local wines with my meals….Eat Local – Drink Local!
Viticulture is said to have been introduced in the early 15th century by Henry the Navigator, who brought back vine material from Crete or from Cyprus. Others suggest that Franciscan monks introduced viticulture from Madeira and mainland Portugal. Regardless of who really did introduce the first vines; I thank them…wine production quickly flourished in this mild and humid Atlantic climate thanks to the hard work of Carmelite and Franciscan monks. Wine is produced primarily on three islands Pico, Terceira and Graciosa and are UNESCO World Heritage designated. Because these vines join a small group of unique viticultures; like Basket Viticulture on Santorini, volcanic soil bowls dug on Lanzarote, and Arboreal Viticulture in Bolivia’s Cinti Valley where the vines climb up trees.
Here the vines run along the ground, on top of small black rocks (biscoitos), rather than neat rows of trellises. And, instead of large fields of vines, the vines are restricted to small squares that have black basalt stone walls built around them. The fact that settlers were able to grow vines on Pico is considered something of a small miracle. The stone walls which surround the small plots “currais” are there to protect the vineyards from the elements. Wind is a big concern, especially wind that comes in from the ocean and carries salt with it. Larger walls, called “jeiros” separate the land from one farmer to another. These little black rocks hold the heat from the day to keep them warm in the night marine air.
Few people even know that the Azores produce some excellent wines –these wines have been exported back to Europe and the World, as this was a stop for sailors for centuries. Even when Czar Nicholas II of Russia was executed in 1917, bottles of Verdelho do Pico were found in his cellar.
Today there is a special wines produced called Czar in his honor; a completely natural wine, without any addition of sugar or yeast reaching an alcohol content of 18% or more. Fortunato Garcia’s Vinho Verdelho leaves most oenologist in awe. One thing the winery does uniquely is to remove all the leaves from the vines a few day before harvest to assure ripening and then it is fermented naturally in barrels. These wines have been exported to the Vatican and the Czar for more than a few centuries. Actually the vineyard logs show that 24,250 liters were exported to Russian Imperial family for over a 20 year period.
It was one of the first wines shown to me as a curiosity… but sells for $100 for 2011 vintage. Proof some wonderful wines can come from apocalyptic terroir! If you have the chance visit the Azores, you won’t be sorry.