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The Island of Pico, the walls on the volcano

The heroic vineyards

Set in the Azores volcanic archipelago, covered by green vegetation interspersed with incredible blooms of hydrangeas, small crater lakes and high cliffs of black or gray basalt, the Island of Pico has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004. The system of stone walls that divides the landscape into long parallel bands has strong similarities with the landscapes of the Cinque Terre in Italy, Alto Douro in Portugal and Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. Their function is the same: the agricultural exploitation of steep slopes, with a network of high walls protecting vines and other crops from violent winds and marine dust.

The architectural heritage of enclosures, castles, houses, churches, warehouses and wine cellars, wells communicating with the sea, ports and roads, together with the presence of natural reserves, the production of high quality wines (above all based on verdelho, white vine from small grapes) and the existence of viticultural and cultural traditions, make it an amazing landscape, where the strong interrelationship between man and nature is evident.

Info: www.visitazores.org

Alto Douro, le quintas del Porto

Alto Douro, le quintas del Porto

The heroic vineyards

The Duero (in Portuguese Douro, in Latin Durius), with its 897 km is the third longest river in the Iberian Peninsula: it was born in Spain from the southern side of the Picos de Urbión system and flows into the Atlantic near Oporto, after having made a jump of about 400 meters when it is channeled into the granitic lands dating back to the Paleozoic period in the border area with Portugal. In the deep valleys of the Alto Douro, carved by the river among the schistmountains, the vine has been cultivated for two thousand years. With its 36000 hectares of vineyards lying on steep slopes, it is the most significant example of mountain viticulture in Europe, confirming the value of the practice adopted by the ancient Romans to plant vineyards on the hillsides exploiting the best conditions of ripeness, reserving the land downstream to the cultivation of olive trees, almond trees, fruit trees and vegetables.

In 2001 UNESCO included in the list of World Heritage Sites this landscape deeply transformed by man to form rows on rows of land terraces and stone walls, hundreds of kilometers of "socalcos” that still today combine with other techniques, like the vineyards on the “patamares” or the vines planted vertically at the end of the XX century. Always inclined - with an ability handed down from generation to generation - so that the sun's rays envelop the vines and give the necessary heat to the grapes, the socalcos, have different shapes depending on the slope of the hills and the period of construction. The oldest ones have low and narrow walls and enclose more irregular portions of land, necessarily built on curves and rocky outcrops. After the devastation of Phylloxera, many of them were abandoned, turning into "mortórios", where over time the dead vines have been covered by wild shrubs or replaced by olive trees by human hands. On some of them, traces of even older interventions are still visible: the pilheiros, holes in the walls where the vines were planted to leave the soil to other crops. Other socalcos, most of which were built between the late XIX century and the thirties of the XX century, have solid walls that support four, five or more rows of vines.

At the end of the Middle Ages it was the Cistercian monks who built and organized many of the still existing quintas on the most beautiful hill slopes of the Douro, the main transport and communication route of the time that allowed goods to reach the city of Porto, at the mouth of the river, in turn connected to the main European maritime trade routes. Here, in 1756, the head of the Portuguese government of that time, Sebastião José de Carvalho Marquis of Pombal, created the first certified wine area in the world founding the Companhia para a Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro Companhia para a Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douroand introducing the first mechanisms of organization and quality control of a wine linked to its territory of origin. Numerous traces of granite markings ("pombalinos“) used to mark the boundaries of the region are still visible, along with evidence of the full range of activities related to the production of wine and its evolution over time: plantations, small forests, water pipes, settlements and rural buildings organized in "quintas” (large farms dedicated to viticulture) or in “casais” (small rural properties), villages, chapels, roads.

This close relationship between the heroic work of man and the territory and a rich genetic legacy that has allowed the survival of over 100 native white and red grapes, contributed to the birth of one of the most known fortified wines in the world, the wine of Oporto. Wine merchants and shippers, both Portuguese and foreigners, developed the storage and mixing techniques of the Oporto wine and favored its commercialization, adapting its taste to the requests of consumers (above all the English ones, the main customers between the end of the XVII and middle of the XX century) and thus contributing to the worldwide spread of its fame. The main peculiarity of Porto, a liqueur wine produced exclusively from grapes from the Douro region, in addition to the climate in which the grapes ripen, is its incomplete fermentation, stopped (mutated) at an initial stage through the addition of alcohol obtained from distillation of wine. In this way the wine is naturally sweet - due to the sugar residual coming from the grapes that the yeasts have not been able to transform entirely into alcohol because they are inhibited by the high concentration of ethanol, which can reach levels between 18% and 22%. Traditionally it is the fruit of an assemblage of grapes from different vineyards, vinified with different techniques, of different vintages; but to the seven basic types (White, Ruby, Tawny, Aged Tawn, Colheita, Late Bottled Vintage and Vintage) the Single Quinta has recently been added, coming from a single estate.

Must see attractions: 1) Quintas: Quinta de Bofim (surrounded by beautiful "azuleios" representing the grape harvest), Quinta do Castelinho (Regua), Quinta do Porto, Quinta Abelleiras (Pontecorvo, a town with medieval remains, renowned for the quality of its ceramics); 2) Palácio Mateus (Vila Real): Built in the first half of the XVIII century in a vast estate designed by Nicolau Nasoni, the Palácio Mateus is considered one of the leading examples of Baroque civil architecture in Portugal. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, it boasts richly carved wooden ceilings, furniture from different eras, XVII and XVIII century paintings, silverware, ceramics and a splendid edition of the "Lusiadi" by Camões, the main Portuguese poet lived in the XVII century. 3) Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios (Lamego): On top of a hill covered by the thick wood of the Parque de Santo Estevão, an imposing baroque staircase of 686 steps leads to a rocaille sanctuary, built between the mid-eighteenth century and the 1905. Some ledges enrich the monumental staircase with interesting sculptural works, among which stand out the Fonte do Pelicano, a small octagonal chapel built in the XVI century in honor of the Virgin, eighteen statues depicting kings and patriarchs of Judea and a monumental fountain with an obelisk of 22 meters decorated and supported by mythical atlases; 4) Museu do Vinho do Porto.

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