Azores. The incredible story behind the Biscoitos wines.
Biscoitos, Terceira Island, Azores. The ocean is just a step away and the northern winds sprinkle our foreheads. The elder Salvador holds a couple of American rootstock stems he is about to plant in yet another curraleta. Built stone by stone, these irregular walls and grids harbor the vineyards. One of the most peculiar vineyards in Portugal and the world is under rehabilitation. That American rootstock — otherwise known as the morangueiro (strawberry plant) — will later be grafted with the most emblematic grape variety of this archipelago: the Verdelho. And a few years from now, grapes will eventually finally sprout and make way for a wine that is nothing short of a treasure in this land of lava.
These walls are square-shaped and stretch out to the sea. None of its stones are placed by chance. None of these vines, either. Some of the curraletas are home to just 4, 6 or 8 plants, according to size. This slow, dedicated labor is carried out by the most experienced hands; by people who have always and will always continue to contribute to the revival of the Biscoitos wine.
Biscoitos is the name of the parish facing north on the municipality of Praia do Mar. A balcony to the Atlantic, its landscape is decorated by green slopes and the blackness of volcanic rocks that dive deep into the sea. When this soil was first used for agriculture and vine was first planted, between the XVI and XVII centuries, the basaltic rocks once produced by cooling magma were named biscoitos by seamen. In their eyes those rocks bore a resemblance to the biscuits that relieved hunger during their travels. Hence the name of this place.
This side of Northern Terceira, people living off the land eventually went looking for more fertile slopes and the biscoitos eventually were destined exclusively for winemaking. This rugged and inhospitable soil, entrapped within a 2 km wide strip, between what is nowadays the national road and the ocean, would later become the Protected Designation of Origin of the Biscoitos.
The Designation still holds, but this is an endangered wine. The hard, even heroic viticulture, subject to Atlantic storms, demands constant intervention. The vine either has to be lowered in order to be protected from strong sea wind and salt by the surrounding walls or raised with the tinchões, stakes that keep grape bunches away from the rocks that heat up during the Summer. Such obstacles and meager production capacity have led to a progressive abandonment of the Biscoitos vineyards. The wine and its unique viticulture heritage were at risk, a centuries-old tradition slowly being replaced by holiday homes and backyards.
Out of the 20 hectares comprising this region, only 9 are currently being used. And out of those 9, only 4 produce Verdelho, the grape variety that best expresses the Atlantic and saline character of Azorean wines. Up until recently the amazing story of the Biscoitos wine seemed to be heading for a gloomy finale, but it is finally time for some optimism: a new project that aims to return these vineyard to the hands of people like the elder Salvador is born. Care to join us?