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.

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