In my Mind I’m Going to Porto Santo

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Porto Santo is a Portuguese island located in the Atlantic Ocean, 27 miles (43 km) northeast of the island of Madeira. It forms the Madeira Archipelago along with the island of Madeira and a small string of islands known as las Ilhas Desertas (literally “the Deserted Islands”).  Porto Santo is a small island, measuring 9 miles (14 km) long and just 5 miles (7.7 km) across.

The earliest record of the history of Porto Santa dates from 1418, when a group of Portuguese ships were (accidently) blown into its sheltered harbor. The ships were in the service of Infante Henrique of Portugal, and had been blown off-course by an intense storm. They named the island Porto Santo (“Holy Harbor”), as their arrival in a sheltered bay during the storm was seen as the result of divine intervention. .

The Ilhéu de Baixo along the unpopulated northern coast

Geologically, the island is divided into two parts—the mountainous northeast, and a relatively flat coastal plain in the southwest, which includes a 4.5 mile-long (7 km) golden sand beach. Laid-back tourism is one of the main industries, and visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, motorbiking, off-roading, windmills, forts, or golf; and may choose to take a two-hour boat ride to Madeira aboard the ferry Lobo Marinh. Waterfront wining and dining may be found in Vila Baleira, the one and only “city” on the island.

History buffs can pay a visit to the Christopher Columbus House Museum and learn that Christopher Colombus was once married to a Portuguese woman and that they lived on Porto Santo for a period of time. Colombus’ wife, Filipa Moniz, unfortunately passed away during childbirth just a few years after their marriage.

Topographical map of the Madeira Archipelago by Bourrichon via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1420s, the Portuguese King sent a group under the command of Captain Bartolomeu Perestrelo to colonize the island. The group planted grapevines and sugar cane, and introduced rabbits to the island. The introduction of rabbits turned out to be not such a good idea, as they rampaged their way across the island and soon dominated the local environment. In a matter of a few (rabbit) generations, they basically ate everything else up.

Another not-so-smart move by these early settlers involved the local Dragon Trees. The valuable sap of the trees, known as “dragon’s blood” is a type of resin used for medicine and dyes. The colony chopped down the trees and literally bled the trees dry to the point that they became extinct on the island. As such, the island lost its original wind protection—and with the help of the ravaging wild rabbits—the area was left rather rugged, wind-blown, and barren. While it certainly has  its own style of natural beauty, the island has never recovered to its original lush state.

Despite the challenges, there is some viticulture on the island of Porto Santo. As Porto Santo is included in the geographic territory of the Madeira DOC, the Madeirense DOC and the VR Terras Madeirenses, these wines may be produced on the island of Porto Santo. Despite the limitations, grapes are a pretty big deal here—agriculture is limited on the island, making grapes, melons, and rabbit the three biggest commodities.

Grapes or wine from Porto Santo may also be sent to the island of Madeira for use in the wines bottled there. There are some obvious logistical challenges to such a project, however—it has been known to happen. For instance, the Madeira Vintners used Listrão and Caraco grapes from Porto Santo in their 2013 vintage. That same year, Porto Santo grower J. Santos produced a sweet white wine from locally grown Listrão as well as an off-dry white wine from the Porto Santo-grown Caracol grapes. You can read reviews of both of these wines on Niklas Jörgensen’s Mad about Madiera blog.

References/for further information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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