I have always been fascinated with cultural traditions.
Learning a special recipe from your grandmother, practicing ‘old-country’ wine making, or taking part in annual festivals – all these traditions promote reflection, education, and community. Traditions are a way to tell a story, to tell the history of your ancestors, and to maintain a portion of that in our modern lives.
How can we maintain our progressive future without the wisdom of our storied past?
What also fascinates me about traditions is how quickly they can be lost when younger generations are not interested, or when older generations do not pass them on. Do not let your grandmother die with that recipe – pick her brain, I promise it will be worth it!
I would like to share with you one of my favorite cultural traditions: the Landscape of Pico Island’s Vineyard Culture in the Azores, Portugal. I have a personal connection with this tradition, not because I can make wine (I can’t), but because my Grandparents are from the Azores – an autonomous region of Portugal filled with so much culture and tradition that it is hard to talk about just one aspect.
The Azores is one of the best-kept secrets of European destinations – probably because it is located roughly in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. An archipelago of nine volcanic islands so beautiful it is often rumored to be the remnants of Atlantis.
The island of Pico, the second largest, is home to a majority of the historic vineyards. You don’t often think of Portugal (or the Azores for that matter) when you think of wine – but here, you will find one of the most unique methods for growing grapes. The distinctive vineyard landscape is constructed of acres of winding, soilless, black basalt plots (locally called currais) with walls up to 2 meters high.
Pico’s geographical makeup inspired these basalt walls starting in the 15th – 16th century.
Its location in the middle of the ocean lends to various limiting factors; salty air, windy conditions, a lack of fine soil, and its landscape is effectively “one big peak”.
The locals realized that the most successful way to grow grapes in these conditions was on a slope to maximize the direct sunlight. This exacerbates the exposure to the strong winds and salt spray, but the basalt walls provide adequate protection. The rocky soil is made of mostly black basalt stones and bedrock - not ideal growing conditions. During the construction of the vineyards, the larger stones were removed from the soil and used to create the weaving walls.
Vines are planted in small pockets of soil and placed in holes in the volcanic bedrock – allowing the roots to grow into the cracks. The vines are able to live off nutrients from the basalt stone bedrock. The result is a grape and wine that’s flavor is sweet and coastal - unique only to the Azores.
Unfortunately, many of the formally cultivated areas of stonewall plots have been gradually abandoned since the Phylloxera disease plagued much of the European industry in the late 19th century. Another cause has been globalization increasing the departure of younger generations from the islands, many losing interested in continuing to make wine like their ancestors. Although many plots are overgrown and un-tended to, in 2004 UNESCO deemed it a World Heritage site. Efforts are now commencing (and succeeding) to revive and preserve this historical landscape.
It takes hard work and determination to maintain our cultural traditions in the modern world, but “without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof!”