The Azores are an archipelago of nine islands about a third of the way out into the Atlantic on a line between Lisbon and New Jersey.
The climate is mild and moist all year, and swiftly changeable: rain, wind, mist, or a teasing sun behind a veil of thin cloud. Lichens, ferns and mosses thrive, and there’s plenty of bright green grass to nurture the dairy cows.
The backdrop is spectacular: active volcanos, crater lakes, waterfalls, beaches composed of swirls of lava, Portugal’s highest mountain (the volcanic peak of Pico island), and hot plains where you can literally cook your dinner. Vines are planted into rock or poor volcanic soils.
The occasional vineyard is trained along modern wires, but most vines still grow within traditional currais, small enclosures of dry stone walls, sometimes no more than two or three meters square. Apart from disposing of volcano-scattered stones, these walls give protection from ocean winds and radiate heat at night.
By far most of the vines grown on the islands are American species, planted after phyllo era. They make a curiously musky wine known as vinho de cheiro or ‘fragrant wine’ – loved by the islanders as well as island emigres in Canada and the USA.
The Azores have no DOP regions, but do have three IPR regions (DOPs-in-waiting): Pico, Biscoitos and Graciosa. Two are fortified (16%+) and wood-aged: IPR Pico (grown on two small coastal patches of the island) and Biscoitos (a tiny, coatal part of the island of Terceira).
The wines are made from Verdelho, Arinto and Terrantez. IPR Graciosa is for unfortified white wine made from the same three grapes plus Fernão Pires and Malvasia Fina. More Vinho Regional Açores is made today than IPR. Inevitably in this cool climate, it is mostly white, but there is some good, light red, including some Merlot.