What I like about writing this Friday piece every week is that I get to look into wine regions I had no idea existed- regions that grow grape varieties I know so little about; it forces me to dig right into what they are and why they inhabit this tiny, old corner of the wine world. Today is one of those days, as we look into the wine region of Faro.
So first up, where on earth is Faro? This wine region covers the very north-east corner of the Italian island of Sicily, directly across from the toe of Italy’s boot (a.k.a. Calabria). Faro in the local dialect means ‘lighthouse’, and that’s what this place was most famous for; the ancient lighthouse would guide sailors through the Strait of Messina between mainland Italy and Sicily. Passing through these straits would save sailors several days time when travelling around Italy’s boot, and was much safer than going around Sicily, where North African pirates would hide and prey on merchant vessels that strayed from the safe shipping routes. Because of this, the region of Faro became a popular trading stop, and like most ancient trading stops (for example Constantia, Bordeaux, Jerez and Oporto), grapes were grown nearby the port town to supply passing ships with fruit, wine and spirits- the grapevine is such a handy crop!
The steep hill and mountain sides of Faro have been planted to these handy grapevines for centuries, with the precipitous slopes cut back into terraces to make them more easily traversable. As a result of the long history of the region, the wines made here are produced entirely from local and ancient native varieties- some of which you will have never heard of before;
Nerello Mascalese must be the dominant variety in Faro wines, consisting of 45-60% of the final wine. This variety ripens late, traditionally harvested between the second and third week of October- incredibly late for the Mediterranean! It brings the whole basket of complex fruit aromas and flavours though needs some support…
Nerello Cappuccio must make up between 15-30% of the final blend. Its name comes from the specific shape of the plant when trained to the traditional bush vine method, where it looks like a cape (Cappuccio in Siciliano). This variety brings structure, tannin and longevity.
Nocera can make up 5-10% ampelographic evidence shows it may be related to historic wines called “Mamertinum”, celebrated by the ancient Latins. This variety struggles to ripen in the volcanic soils of Faro, and therefore brings the all-important acid to the blend.
Nero d’Avola does not legally have to be in the wines of Faro, though many traditional producers do use a small addition of this variety to bring a bitter, black olive twist to the wine.
So the question must be asked; why have we not heard of Faro before? Well, first off, the region is tiny! In 2014 it consisted of 15 hectares of grapes, producing approximately 2000 dozen wines/year. Secondly it is because no wine came out of Faro for about 10 years from the mid 70s to the mid 80s! The region existed as an official DOC quality wine region on paper, though there was not one producer making wines from here! You see, while the local wine scene was very popular in the 14th century (William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is set in this region), Sicily had a tough run of things in the early half of last century. The modernisation of modern-day Italy seemed to leave Sicilians behind to their traditional agrarian ways, and the smaller trading boats were replaced by big shipping tankers that could no longer fit through the Strait of Messina, meaning the towns were visited less, and the region’s wines lost popularity. As their wines could no longer provide an income, farmers simply walked away from their vineyards.
Then in the early 90s, when land prices were criminally low, a handful of mainland winemakers took a risk and set down roots (excuse the pun) here in Faro. They found a wealth of old, un-grafted vines (phylloxera cannot live in the volcanic soils of this island) with new flavours and an exciting future when treated gently, and the popularity of wines from Sicily, and most notably the foothills of Mount Enta, have seen an unprecedented period of growth over the last few years. So keep your eye out; whilst still far from mainstream, you may be seeing more wines from Faro before long!
Wine Sales Manager