Tracking down the Neveda and Funcho liqueurs of Pico – a visit to the Pico Wine Cooperative
This story goes back all the way to Faial, where I was doing a hike with Akos, a friend I got to know through my blog. Akos has been island-hopping on the Azores, and I joined him for a few days to visit Faial. We had a great time. Unfortunately I was about to go down with the cold by the time I arrived, but that of course did not stop us from accomplishing all our hiking and sightseeing goals. This was my first time to Faial after all. Akos flew in from Pico, so when I was really not feeling well anymore he kindly offered me a drink of a treasure he scored on Pico: the Neveda Liqueur. The drink proved to be a wonderful medication, but at this stage I only knew that it was made on Pico, has an excellent taste and successfully cures a cold.
I usually experience so many new things on my travels that some of the unfortunately slip my mind, exactly what happened with the Neveda Liqueur. So it was at the Blues Market event in Ponta Delgada – a great programme in addition to the 9th European Blues Challenge – where I discovered this saviour of a drink yet once more. This is where I met Jessica Lemos who is in charge of marketing at Picowines. Since I knew I will be visiting Pico within a few weeks I made an appointment with Jessica, because I thought I need to bring you all the information I can about this great drink. Two weeks passed by and I was already on Pico, where Jessica gave me a tour of the facility and was kind enough to answer a few questions.
My main focus during the interview were the liquors because I like them so much (of course at home in Hungary my Dad’s bio palinka is my absolute favourite), but of course we talked about wine, too, since most of the products produced in the Coop are wines. In fact when you mention you are traveling to Pico island, most people first think of its very special wine cultivation regions. These regions are officially UNESCO world heritage sites since 2004, and two special regions – Lajido Criacao Velha, and Lajido Santa Luzia – even got the status “protected”.
Jessica has been in charge of regional marketing at the Coop for 3 years already, where the people who work there prefer the name Cooperativa Vitivinicola da Ilha do Pico over Picowines because it shows that they are in fact a Cooperative (Coop) working with over 250 local grape producers. The Coop was founded in 1949 by 50 grape producers with the aim to create fortified wines on the Azores using native Azorean grapes.
Eden Azores: What are the origins of winemaking on Pico island?
Jessica: in the 15th century after the first settlers settled on the island there was a monk called Frei Pedro Gigante – Giant Peter – who brought the first grape plants to the island. The most popular white wine of the Azores, Frei Gigante, is named in his honour.
When I first arrived to Pico I had seen something I never have seen before, it was fantastic. From above I could see the stone walls made out of volcanic rock, and the vines in between. They just looked incredible. If you would like to take pictures before landing on Pico and you are coming from Sao Miguel, I recommend that you take a window seat on the left side during boarding (inter-island flight seats are not pre-assigned).
Why is it so important to have such stone walls to protect the vine? And how is it even possible to plant anything in a soil covered with basalt? Does the volcanic characteristics of the soil transpire into the wine that is made from these grapes?
Absolutely yes, all our wines have this wonderful volcanic taste thanks to the mineral-rich soil. We plant the vines by placing them into small cracks in the basalt, and then proceed to fill up the crack with proper soil. The approximately 1 meter high basalt rock walls are built to protect the vines from the salty winds blowing from the ocean, because otherwise these winds can easily burn the vine leaves. But the vine on the island grows only in the proximity of the ocean, therefore building these walls is our only option. A further benefit of the basalt rock wall is that it ensures a pretty much constant temperature around the vines, which is very important for grape growth. During the day the basalt soaks up the heat of the sun and then at night radiates this heat back so the vine is kept at pretty much the same temperature all day long. This concept is similar to that of a glass house, except the basalt rock walls have no roof. Of course these walls have cracks in them since they are made of irregular shaped smaller basalt rocks, but these cracks also have a purpose: they ensure constant airflow.
What is the main product of your Coop?
80% of the production is wine, 95% of which is sold on the Azores. White wine is made from native Azorean grapes such as Arinto dos Acores, Verdelho, and Terrantez do Pico. Our local red wine is mostly made from American grapes (Isabella and Saibel) – originating our vinho de cheiro. These grapes were brought to the Azores after the native grapes have suffered from different illnesses (grapevine pest Phylloxera and fungus Uncinula necator). American vine species have somehow evolved to have several natural defenses against such illnesses. These grapes are used to produce slightly lower quality wine. For our middle range wines we are using European grapes such as Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet. If the grape harvest has been plentiful, the residual grape skins are used to make brandy (aguardente), which is aged in American oak barrels. Last year’s yield was so huge it has been decided that the brandy production will be complemented with the introduction of new products, such as flavored liqueurs. Liqueur making is a long standing tradition on Pico, people like to make it themselves, and enjoy it as digestif after a nice meal.
So how are these wonderful flavoured liqueurs made? I have to admit they are the main reason I am here today.
The main goal of the Coop is to produce wine, but in 2018 the harvests yielded a record breaking 400 tons of grapes on the island, therefore there was an incredible amount of residue and grape skins available after the wine has been put into barrels. So far this residue was used exclusively to create brandy, but with this incredible volume available the board decided to take some of the brandy a step further and create flavored liquors from it. In the first processing step the grape skins and other grape residue are distilled, resulting in 50%-60% strong brandy. In the second processing step the brandy is infused with different fruits, spices, or herbs for a period of 2 to 3 weeks (or even a month). We are also adding sugar to the brandy to lower its alcohol content and also to start the fermentation of the added fruits. In case of a lemon liqueur the lemon peels are infused in brandy, for a cinnamon liqueur we are infusing cinnamon sticks.
How do you know how long you need to infuse these fruits and herbs in brandy?
The person in charge of the production, my colleague Humberto is making the liqueurs, but of course all our visitors are welcome to try these drinks and give us their feedback. We also have quality engineers on site who are regularly monitoring the quality of our products. As a rule of thumb however we are infusing the brandy with herbs, spices, or fruits for a 3 week period.
Have you ever entered your wine to international competitions? If yes, how did they do?
Yes, certainly, but not every vintage. In 2016 for example – when the harvest yield was way below expectations but the harvest quality was in fact superior – we sent our wines to different competitions to mainland Portugal, Germany, and Switzerland and all of them got gold or silver medals. But there are years – like unfortunately 2017 has been – when production quantities were so low it was not worth entering in any kind of competition because we simply did not have that many bottles on stock. Just to illustrate what I mean when I say “low production quantities” it is important to note that we are processing an average of 250 tons of grapes in the facility every year. In 2016 however we only received 150 tons of grapes, while in 2017 even less – a mere 100 tons – from our producers. The year 2018 has been a really good one with 400 tons of available grapes. The main reasons behind the decline in production are the spring (April and May) storms and the unpredictable weather conditions in general (due to climate change).
Are you planning to enter the international market?
Four years ago the Coop made the strategic decision to try and enter the international market. However, as of today we are selling most of our production on the Azores. We are very proud to be a Cooperation, collecting and protecting the wine growers and also trying to reduce the cost of wine production. Approximately 5% of our production goes to warehouses in the United States, Germany and Switzerland, but we cannot produce as much wine as it would be required to really establish ourselves abroad.
I have heard rumours that some of the wine labelled as “Azorean” is not even made from Azores grapes, meaning the grapes are purchased and shipped from continental Portugal. Some even say there are cases when the wine itself arrives from continental Portugal and is only being enriched with real Azorean wine. Is this true?
Unfortunately, this is true – but never in our Coop. 100% of the grapes which go into production at our facility are from the Azores, grown on the island. These shameful “winemakers” that you talk about are damaging the honest Azorean wine producers, and also the general reputation of the Azores.
The main reason behind this treacherous behaviour is that they want to produce cheap wine, therefore they buy the ingredients cheap in mainland Portugal, ship it, and only bottle it on the Azores which might confuse the customers.
What can we do to avoid this scam? How to make sure the wine we are buying is really local?
There is an Azorean wine commission called CVRAcores (Commission of the Azores Regional Viticultural). If you can locate their logo on the wine label, and the signs DO (Denominação de Origem – Designation of Origin) or IG (Indicação Geográfica – Geographical Indication) you can be sure that the product you purchased was made from Azorean grown grapes and that the used grape variety is listed as approved by CVRAcores. A board of wine tasters and quality controllers are scoring the wines: those with 80% or more points become DO, those with between 70% and 80% points become IG certification.
Of course even we have wine that have neither DO nor IG certification, even though it is made from Pico grown grapes. It is because these grape varieties are not listed as approved by CVRAcores, which means they are not of the highest quality.
How and when is the harvest on Pico? Are you celebrating the end of the harvest season on the Azores?
The harvest on Pico usually takes place in August and September, and it is a very special time of the year to visit the wine growers. We are organizing special tours for visitors during these times.
Before the harvest begins, our experts visit every wine grower to control the quality of the grapes, and to create a plan (complete with a map) which grape varieties will be harvested and in which order. The best wine growing territory on Pico is Criação Velha. This UNESCO protected territory has vines which are over 150 years old, and their volcanic, mineral-rich soil provides a very special flavor. Interestingly, younger vines yield more, but older vines yield higher quality (but less) grapes.
Of course at the end of the harvest in October there is a big feast (Festas de Vindinas) when the entire Coop gathers to celebrate, and everyone can join us and taste the new wine.
And now I need to get back to the liquors one more time. What flavors do you have in the sortiment? Which ones are the most special?
The Neveda liquor is probably our most special one, it is made from calamint (Calamintha Officinalis). It is a wonderful digestive, and also helps curing the common cold.
Jessica’s favorite is the cinnamon liquor, but they have several other flavors in the sortiment such as honey, lemon, banana, blackberry, and tangerine. My personal favorite is the fennel (Funcho) liquor.
Many of you asked about gift ideas to bring home from the Azores, so Jessica and I have a few suggestions in case you want to buy liquid souvenir from Pico. You can see the gift sets on the photos below. The mini bottles are only available to purchase at the Coop facility. During the summer season tourists are welcome to visit and tour the facility – complete of course with wine and liquor tasting (please note you need to book your visit in advance).
Hereby I would like to thank the Pico Wine Coop and Jessica again for assisting me writing this article. I love their liquors – having tried them all I am an even bigger fan than before. If you happen to visit the Pico Wine Coop in the summer, please send me a photo and let me know what you liked the most.