Azores special: World Heritage vineyards

The ancient vineyards of the Azores are a World Heritage Site. Cathy Packe takes a tour

The black volcanic terrain along the west coast of Pico island looks bleak and inhospitable. It is divided up into small parcels, some the size of large flower-beds, others more like tiny gardens. Each is separated from its neighbours' by low walls, most of which are no more than waist-height, although some would reach as far as an adult shoulder. Gnarled and ancient shrubs are growing in each, although go at the wrong time of year and it is difficult to tell if the shrubs are still clinging to life.

These beds are one of the greatest treasures of the Azores. They are ancient vineyards that have been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for their unique design, and are still used to grow grapes in this unlikely part of the world. The earliest vines struggled to survive here; hardly surprising given that the soil is densely strewn with lumps of volcanic lava. In order for large-scale planting to take place, the biggest stones had to be cleared, so they were piled up and used to make walls for the small enclosures in which the vines were planted. The walls not only divided up the vines but sheltered them from the harsh Atlantic winds and provided extra warmth which would help the grapes to ripen.

The vineyards are just off to the right of the main road that heads south out of Madalena, the main village on Pico and the place where the ferries arrive from Faial. The houses in the village of Criação Velha are built from the same black basalt blocks as the vineyard walls, with details picked out in white. Turn off the main road and drive along the track as far as Calhau harbour. There are vineyards in every direction; and beyond, on the right-hand side, are panoramic views of Faial across the water.

The harbour at Calhau isn't exactly bustling, but there are usually a few boats marooned on the gravel. This is the starting point for an eight-kilometre hiking trail through the vineyards. It is rarely busy. But if you look carefully as you walk along the dirt path, you can see the tracks of an ox-drawn wagon that would once have been used to harvest the grapes.

To witness Azorean viticulture first-hand, head to the village of Biscoitos which straddles the main road encircling the island of Terceira - a pleasant place slightly more than halfway along the north coast as you head away from the airport. There is a main street, with a church, a few shops and some houses. It is a coastal village, with black rocks along the shore that form natural pools for swimmers. In the middle of the village is an elegant house, built in 1931, surrounded by its own gardens and next to it is a small tower that is nearly 200 years older.

This is the headquarters of Casa Agricola Brum, the main winery on Terceira, and the location of an interesting museum that charts the history of the Azores' wine-making. Grapes were first grown in this area more than 400 years ago when vines of the verdelho grape were introduced from Sicily. An industry developed and flourished until the 19th century, when it was decimated by the phylloxera virus. But vines were re-established by a wine maker of Flemish origin called Francisco Maria Blum, the founder of the modern Biscoitos vineyard. Chico Maria, as he was known, started the company in 1890, and the business is now run by the fourth generation of his family. It grew once again into a thriving business, and the location of its headquarters in the heart of the village is an indication of its importance in the community.

A hundred years later, a museum was created in this building. Its well-laid out rooms contain a fascinating living collection of items that were used in the cultivation and picking of the grapes, and in the production of wine - there are baskets for carrying the harvested fruit, and ancient barrels in which the wine was matured. One of the most interesting exhibits is an old wine-press that would have been suspended between the wheels of an ox-cart and taken from house to house to collect the grapes.

Modern wine-making techniques have gradually reached the Azores, although the grapes are still picked by hand. They are grown about half a mile from the winery, in square beds or "curraletas" spread out along the coast. The grapes that go into Casa Brum's table wines are fermented in temperature-controlled, stainless steel vats. But traditional methods persist in the production of a range of fortified wines, known as "generoso". The grapes are crushed underfoot, and the wine is then fermented in barrels made of oak. The fermentation process is stopped by the addition of "aguardente vínica", a brandy-like mixture which makes the wine stronger.

All these wines are available for sampling - and for sale - in Casa Brum's well-equipped tasting room. The range includes Donatorio, a pleasant white table wine and three fortified wines, which are named for the company's founder, Chico Maria, and can be dry, semi-dry or sweet. There are plans to build up production, but for the moment a limited amount of wine is produced each year, so the table wine is sold in half-litre bottles which cost €5 (£3.60). Chico Maria comes in standard 75cl bottles, which cost €8.50 (£6.10) for the sweet wine, €12.50 (£9) for the dry version.

The wine museum at Canada do Caldeiro, Biscoitos, Terceira (00 351 295 908 305; www.casaagricolabrum.com) opens 10am-noon, 1.30-4pm Tuesday to Sunday from October to March; and until 5.30pm from April to September. The museum closes during the third week of September when the grapes are being harvested. Entrance is free.

TASTING TIME

The wines of the Azores are extremely drinkable, but because relatively little is produced almost none are exported. The choice is not extensive, but for a pleasant local wine, look out for Terras de Lava, a white, slightly fruity, table wine; a light red wine called Basalto; and Cavaco, a range that includes both red and white wines. But the best that is produced here is Lajido, a fortified wine similar to white port which is served chilled as an aperitif, although, unlike its better-known counterpart, it is not found outside its native area. Lajido is made from verdelho grapes which have been cultivated very successfully on the island of Pico since the vines were first planted there in the 16th century. Back then, grapes were even sold to the English royal family and the Russian Tsars. Anyone with a sweeter tooth should look out for Angelica, a richer drink sometimes served before a meal but perhaps more suitable as a dessert wine.

Local wines are available in the island's supermarkets, along with a wider selection of bottles from Portugal, but there is more choice in the specialist shops, and the prices are usually lower. In addition to the small shop at the wine museum at Biscoitos on Terceira, there is a wine co-operative on Pico. The Cooperativa Vitivinicola (00 351 292 622 262; www.picowines.net) is on the outskirts of Madalena, the main village on the island, at Avenida Padre Nunes da Rosa 29. Bottles of Cavaco are available for €2.06 (£1.50) a bottle; with Terras de Lava and Basalto at €2.94 (£2.10) and €3.31 (£2.40) respectively. The fortified wines are slightly more expensive: a half-litre bottle of Lajido sells for €5.29 (£3.80).

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