Many visitors to Sicily arrive by air in Catania or Palermo but there is an alternative. The Strait of Messina is less than two miles wide at its narrowest point and ferries regularly make the short crossing carrying cars, lorries, pedestrians and, amazingly, even trains to and from the Italian mainland. As Vinnie and I enjoyed the short ferry journey, I explained that Messina is known as the city without a memory, the reason being that Messina was hit by a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 1908 which destroyed huge swathes of the buildings. As a result, it had to be almost completely rebuilt. It was badly hit again during bombing raids by the allies in the Second World War. The consequence of all this reconstruction is that there is little of the history that you associate with the typical Italian city. However, as we approach the harbour I can point out one surviving piece of history. The lighthouse, Punta San Ranieri, was originally constructed as part of fortifications to protect the city from marauding Ottoman Turks in 1555. It was converted into a lighthouse by the addition of an octagonal tower in 1857.
The Italian word for lighthouse is faro and it is no coincidence that this is the name given to the local DOC wine produced in the hills above the city – and that is to be our destination. This wine is a blend of several different grape varieties and there is always the argument of whether to blend or not to blend. Done properly, I personally think it gives the winemaker the chance to exploit the differing strengths of different varietals to produce a harmonious and balanced result – think of it like a string quartet. However, there are certainly purists who would disagree. One thing is certain and that is that vines need time to adapt to their environment to produce their best grapes. Faro is blended from three native varieties, Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Nocera, that are very much rooted in the local earth which is a mixture of clay and limestone, in sharp contrast to the heavily volcanic soils on nearby Mount Etna.
To find out more, Vinnie and I headed for the Bonavita winery high up in the mountains. At over 250 metres above sea level, it has a fabulous view over the strait to the Italian mainland beyond. The owner, Giovanni, is following in the footsteps of his father, Carmelo, in caring for this tiny gem which extends to just a little over seven hectares of which only two and a half are devoted to vines. The family used to produce wine only for their own consumption. Some of the vines are up to 80 years old and some are still trained in the traditional alberello or little tree method. This technique involves staking each vine and growing it as a small bush. This has the advantage of allowing the individual plant plenty of light and air. Here, Giovanni produces only 10,000 bottles per year and all is done to the highest organic standards.
The wine is bottled unfiltered and has a deep ruby colour. On the nose there are ripe cherries, raspberries, and herbs with hints of vanilla and leather. On the palate it is fresh and elegant with a good structure – due to the length of time that Giovanni allows for the wine to mature – and has a long finish. This is a wine that can be drunk straight away but will also reward those who can resist temptation and lay it down for some years. As with all Italian wines the pairing is important and Giovanni suggests roasted red meat.
For those who want to make up their own minds about the merits or otherwise of blending, Giovanni makes small quantities, only a few hundred bottles, of a wine he calls Ilnò that is 100% Nocera and the range is completed by a rosé.