A Unique Taste Of History (& Wine!) On Pico Island, Azores

May 19, 2024
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Before I even set foot onto Pico Island, its rich winemaking history was unmistakable.  As our small plane began its approach, I could see the patterns of volcanic rock-hedged vineyards covering the ground for as far as the eye could see.  I was excited to explore the island overall, but especially to taste Pico’s wine and learn more about its unique history.

How to Visit the Vineyards of Pico Island, Azores | As a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its volcanic wineries, wine tasting on Pico Island in the Azores is a fascinating experience...how to plan your visit, whether to DIY or go on a tour, which wineries to visit, how to learn about the history, things to do on Pico Island, & more!

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How to plan wine tastings on Pico Island

There are a few options for tasting wine on Pico Island, each with pros and cons.  First, you can rent a car and drive yourself around (which I did, as I was staying a few days on the island).  To be fair, I also waited too late to book tours to the good ones were full.

The great thing is then you have full autonomy, can spend as little or as much time as you want in different places, and can visit more spots.  However, the downside is that you miss out on a lot of the history and context, and in particular I had trouble figuring out how to do the historic vineyards hike.

The other primary option is to book a guided tour, usually either a half day or full day.  The benefit of a tour is efficiency and everything being booked for you (including experiences you might not have known about), as well as getting a much richer sense of what you’re seeing and tasting.

There are a handful of great options, including this full-day wine-focused tour with amazing reviews (or this one as an alternative), a full-day food AND wine focused one, or a private half-day tour where you have more control over the timing and itinerary.

However, if you have a very short time on Pico, or are perhaps visiting as a day trip from Faial, a more comprehensive island tour that includes wine tasting and history but doesn’t solely focus on it may be a better fit.

View from airplane of Pico Island's historic vineyards, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

View from airplane of Pico Island's historic vineyards, a UNESCO World Heritage Site - Pico wine tour options

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A bit about Pico’s winemaking history

Although many of Portugal’s wine regions are famous around the world (such as the Douro Valley’s port wines and Madeira), Pico wine is practically unknown despite being cultivated for over 500 years.  It is, however, the most sought-after wine in the Azores.

Pico was once considered a “monstrous, hideous and uncultivated” island, often called the Gray Island due to the dark volcanic rock that covers much of it.  It was settled and cultivated with immense effort after being discovered in the 1400s, and the local population adapted the harsh volcanic landscape to wine producing shortly thereafter.

It has a unique terror that produces interesting wines with high minerality and saltiness (I promise, it tastes much better than it sounds).  Personally I think it’s much better suited to whites than reds, and it is known for its Verdelho, a white grape of unknown origin.

One of the things that is so fascinating about winemaking on Pico is the historic currals, or black basalt volcanic stone fences that cover much of the island like honeycomb.  These are very tight rectangles or circles that protect the vines from the wind, and also gather heat during the day to keep the vines warm at night (creating tiny microclimates).

The vineyards create a striking look, particularly when contrasting against the red soil, green vine leaves, and bright blue sea and sky.  The winemaking on Pico is done in a very historic, traditional way, and Vinhas da Criação Velha was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 2000s.

Pico wines (transported out of Faial, with a Faial stamp) gained notoriety throughout the world in the 1700s and 1800s, and by the early 1900s they even graced the tables of the Czar of Russia!  A fun historic tidbit I was told was that Pico wines were among Thomas Jefferson’s favorites and found in his cellar, but he thought he was drinking Madeira (or claimed it was?)—which was very popular at the time.

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its volcanic wineries, wine tasting on Pico Island in the Azores is a fascinating experience

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A guide to exploring Pico wine on your own

If you’re actually staying on Pico (which I recommend!) and not just doing a day trip, then I do recommend renting a car.  For renting a car internationally, I always search in a few different places and compare both the prices and specific offerings/benefits.  My go-to’s are DiscoverCars and RentalCars.com, but I use DiscoverCars more often than not (and did, for all my Azores rentals).  I have a detailed guide to renting a car in the Azores as well as driving tips.

Just because you have a car doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t consider booking some individual tours or a half- or full-day wine-focused tour.  As mentioned above, it may be a better way to truly experience Pico’s wine history and make sure you visit the places you want.

Also, if you’re staying on the island, I have written about the absolutely gorgeous B&B that I stayed in, and which other housing I recommend (honestly, Madalena is “mid”, and if you have a car I’d stay outside the city).

Okay, let’s dive into Pico wine tasting!

View of Pico Island's historic vineyards, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, from the wine museum - Pico wine tour options

Other Azores adventures to help plan your trip:

Everything You Need To Know About Car Rental & Driving In The Azores

A Detailed Roadtrip Guide to Sao Miguel Island

Exploring the Vibrant, Medieval City of Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel

Sao Miguel’s Glorious Sete Cidades: Miradouro Vista do Rei & More

Steeped In Tradition: Visiting A Tea Plantation In The Azores

Where To Stay On Pico Island: The Unique, Beautiful, & Historic Casas de Incensos

How To Make The Most of a Day on Faial Island

…& more coming soon.  Check out all my Portugal posts here!

Azores Wine Company

My first winery visit was at the top of my list, Azores Wine Company (you can see more reviews here).  First, it’s a beautiful location…you really are immersed in the volcanic rock vineyards but with a view of the azure ocean in the distance.

Owned by an important wine family in Portugal, their tasting room is fairly new and quite modern, a project by well-known Portuguese architects in partnership with a London firm.  They also offer accommodations and a restaurant on-site.

I had booked my tasting directly with the company through their website (booking ahead is recommended), the “Salt & Spices” tasting.  My tour guide offered me a welcome glass of wine, and then we started with a short tour around the property along with some history of Pico’s winemaking and the company.

I actually found the depth of history of Pico’s wine (not only the company’s) to be extremely good here, and I learned a ton!

View of Pico Island's historic vineyards, a UNESCO World Heritage Site - Azores Wine Company

Azores Wine Company tasting room on Pico Island

View of Pico Island's historic vineyards, a UNESCO World Heritage Site - Azores Wine Company

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Then we went back inside to do the tasting.  I tried two different whites and a rosé, as well as a red.  Lol my notes on the red were “Whoa that one is unique and not my fave, but interesting.”

They gave me a little Pico local cheese and bread with my wines as well…the island is known for its cheese and I sampled them all!

Given the volcanic soil and proximity to the ocean, all of their wines had a ton of acidity and minerality, as well as some salt notes.  Interestingly, I learned that this was not from the sea air, but rather from the 30m roots of the vines reaching down to salt water caves.

Tasting the wines and local cheese at Azores Wine Company on Pico Island

Tasting the wines and local cheese at Azores Wine Company on Pico Island

Tasting the wines and local cheese at Azores Wine Company on Pico Island, a Verdelho white wine

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Pico Wine Museum (skippable)

I honestly don’t remember why, but I did briefly stop by the Pico Wine Museum.  As has been well-documented on this site, I’m not a museum person.  I think maybe it was just like, right there where I parked, so I decided to stop in for a few minutes?

The museum is located inside the facilities of a winery and an old Carmelite convent, near the Madalena city center.   It’s certainly one place to see the the iconic volcanic currals (and there’s one particularly scenic spot), but you can experience them so many other places that it’s not necessary.

The museum is free on Sundays, closed Mondays.  I feel like it’s hard to really make sense of it or get the value unless you’re doing a guided tour, but you can walk around a bit if you like.

View of the historic UNESCO World Heritage Site vineyards & black basalt currals on Pico Island

Pico Wine Museum

azores wine company pico,pico wine,pico wine tour,wine tasting on pico island

azores wine company pico,pico wine,pico wine tour,wine tasting on pico island

azores wine company pico,pico wine,pico wine tour,wine tasting on pico island

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Perhaps the coolest thing to me was the dragon trees located on the property, one of which was over 400 years old.

Dragon tree that's hundreds of years old at the wine museum on Pico Island

Dragon tree that's hundreds of years old at the wine museum on Pico Island

Dragon tree that's hundreds of years old at the wine museum on Pico Island

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Cooperativa PicoWines

The next morning I grabbed some pastries and pulled up to the Cooperativa Vitivinicola PicoWines (see more reviews here), a co-op founded in 1949 by producers who were trying to recover the historic grape varieties and cultures.  Today some 250 grape producers and winemakers are involved, producing known labels like Frei Gigante, Terras da Lava and Terroir Vulcánico.

I signed up for their next tour, which was almost full but still had space for one person (again, book ahead if you want to make sure you get in).  Again, we had a bit of cheese with our wines.

The ambiance felt a lot more sterile here rather than at the individual wineries, but our guide Maria (a winemaker herself) was very knowledgeable.  She also told us a ton about the history of the island’s winemaking as well.  I did get quite antsy, as it took over an hour to try three wines.

Of the ones I tried, the Arinto was probably my fave.  The second wine we tried was the Verdelho (the mother wine/vine in Pico).  She gave us a little extra at the end, a sweeter dessert wine (this isn’t typical, but I’d expressed interest).

Cooperativa Vitivinicola PicoWines is a great place to learn about Pico wines history on the island

Cooperativa Vitivinicola PicoWines is a great place to learn about Pico wines history on the island

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UNESCO World Heritage Vineyards at Criação Velha

A visit to Pico wouldn’t be complete without walking through the historic Vinhas da Criação Velha, the historic UNESCO World Heritage vineyards.  There are trails that anyone can use to walk through the vineyards and see the currals and vines up close.  The trail is also known as the Trilha de Vinhas.

Here’s where things went a bit sideways for me, because I had the hardest time figuring out where to start the vineyard walk and where I could park.  Google Maps tried to take me to the windmill below, which you can’t actually drive to.  I tried to find the PR05PIC trail I’d read about, but again, it was unclear what/where that was.

Finally I kind of figured out a place to start that was near the windmill, so I just parked on the side of the road and hoped it was okay.  When I saw how red the dirt was, I swapped out my white tennis shoes for sandals (but sneakers would have been better in terms of not getting rocks in my shoes).  Then I walked toward the windmill, and all the way down to the ocean, then back the same way to my car.

I’m still a bit baffled by why I couldn’t find the other trails and stops that I’d read about, that must be on a different part of the trail.  So make sure you plan ahead, and maybe ask some locals for their advice?  I’d definitely recommend going out in the morning as it’s fully exposed and was quite hot when I was there early afternoon, but at least there was some wind.

One of the must-do items on Pico Island is to visit Vinhas da Criação Velha, the historic UNESCO World Heritage vineyards and walk around the trails

red windmill at Vinhas da Criação Velha, the historic UNESCO World Heritage vineyards

One of the must-do items on Pico Island is to visit Vinhas da Criação Velha, the historic UNESCO World Heritage vineyards and walk around the trails

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Lucas Lopes Amaral

My last stop before I ran out of time was Adega Vitivinicola Lucas Lopes Amaral.  It was later than I’d hoped at that point, so I did a three-wine tasting and a cheese board rather than anything more involved.  It’s a small family-run winery and it was just his wife working there, so with plenty of people visiting there was a bit of a wait.

I used the time to enjoy the lovely view…though it was HOT!!  They offer daily tastings (except Sundays) paired with their own petiscos (snacks) and local cheeses.

If you're doing Pico wine tours, one of the vineyards you must stop at is Adega Vitivinicola Lucas Lopes Amaral, a young local winemaker

glass of wine held up against Pico basalt stone fences - If you're doing Pico wine tours, one of the vineyards you must stop at is Adega Vitivinicola Lucas Lopes Amaral, a young local winemaker

If you're doing Pico wine tours, one of the vineyards you must stop at is Adega Vitivinicola Lucas Lopes Amaral, a young local winemaker. Try the local cheese with your wine.

If you're doing Pico wine tours, one of the vineyards you must stop at is Adega Vitivinicola Lucas Lopes Amaral, a young local winemaker

If you're doing Pico wine tours, one of the vineyards you must stop at is Adega Vitivinicola Lucas Lopes Amaral, a young local winemaker

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One place I didn’t get to stop was Adega A Buraca, which I’d heard good things about.  You can taste wines as well as local liquor or moonshine.

As you can see, Pico’s vineyards provide a rich and interesting history along with delicious wines for you to taste!  It’s a wonderful way to learn about the island and explore the landscapes, whether on your own or with a guided tour.

Other unique wine region experiences you’ll love:

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How to Visit the Vineyards of Pico Island, Azores | As a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its volcanic wineries, wine tasting on Pico Island in the Azores is a fascinating experience...how to plan your visit, whether to DIY or go on a tour, which wineries to visit, how to learn about the history, things to do on Pico Island, & more! Azores itinerary ideas, what to do in the Azores. #azores #picoisland #unescosite

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