Something is happening in Abruzzo.
Year by year, this wild, sparsely populated and earthquake-prone region of central Italy is making more wines worthy of attention.
"Abruzzo has grown," says Stefano Papetti Ceroni, 43, a former lawyer from Bologna who in 2010 began making wine labeled De Fermo at his in-laws' sleepy farm in Loreto Aprutino. "Now, there are more smaller producers."
Abruzzo wines have long been hit or miss. A trio of producers helped put the region on the fine-wine map in the last half-century. Valentini became best known for velvety white Trebbiano d'Abruzzo with long aging potential. Emidio Pepe focused on elegant, ageworthy red Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. And Masciarelli pioneered powerful modern reds and whites.
These wineries continue to thrive. With the deaths of Edoardo Valentini in 2006 and Gianni Masciarelli in 2008, family members have taken over. Emidio Pepe, now 85, has turned over winemaking to his daughter Sofia.
At the same time, the pioneers are inspiring a new generation.
On a recent trip to Valentini's hometown of Loreto Aprutino, nestled in the hills between the warm Adriatic Sea and the tallest glacial mountain peaks in central Italy, I visited some new-wave wineries of the last 20 years—all of which farm organically, use low-tech production methods, including indigenous yeasts, and have found a helpful friend in Valentini's son and current winemaker, Francesco Paolo Valentini, 55.
Take the case of Papetti Ceroni. He and his wife, Eloisa De Fermo, farm biodynamically and, with no enology training or help from a consulting winemaker, produce wines that now appear on the lists of prestigious venues such as the Batali-Bastianich partnership Del Posto, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner in Manhattan.
The De Fermo wines—including the elegant flagship Montepulciano d'Abruzzo called Prologo, a simpler Montepulciano called Concrete, a Montepulciano rosé and a white from the Pecorino variety—are made in the stone cellar of an old farmhouse, in cement vats and large oak barrels. Production is now 3,750 cases annually.
"My path is a common one for artisan vignerons in Italy; we arrived in wine from other areas," says Papetti Ceroni.
Papetti Ceroni grew up a city kid. He discovered wine in the reviews of his mother's cooking magazines. At 12, he bought his first bottle of wine "to smell the aromas the journalists were writing about—not to drink." In his last year of high school, he took three sommelier courses.
In 2005, he married fellow lawyer Eloisa, who hailed from a land-owning family in Loreto. Two years later, the couple visited the vineyards, and Papetti Ceroni found what he calls "the second love of my life."
Papetti Ceroni soon took over the farm, which had not produced wine since 1955. Five years later, he quit his law job to become a full-time producer. The vineyards—about 35 acres—include nearly 3 acres of Chardonnay imported from France and planted in 1926 by his wife's Burgundy-loving great uncle. From those vineyards, De Fermo makes more than 300 cases of a barrel-fermented Chardonnay called Launegild.
Along the way, he has found a friend in Francesco Paolo Valentini, who encouraged and advised him, and vouched for his wines. "Francesco was my first sponsor," says Papetti Ceroni.
Similarly, Valentini has mentored other younger producers, including Adriana Galasso and Fausto Albanesi of Torre dei Beati in Loreto Aprutino and Leonardo Pizzolo of Valle Reale, about 30 miles inland in the chilly mountain foothills at the intersection of three national parks.
"Francesco was the one to convince me to go on," says Pizzolo, 48, an economics graduate and mountain climber from an affluent Verona family. He came south in 1999 to make wine and cultivate his family's remote vineyards, from which they had been selling grapes.
In the years since, Pizzolo has expanded the vineyards from 20 acres to more than 120. In good years, Valle Reale produces up to eight wines, including five cru bottlings. Overall production varies wildly, from 5,400 to 20,800 cases, due to seasonal factors like spring frosts and summer hail.
Pizzolo says that after his initial efforts at high-altitude winemaking and some mistakes, "I met Francesco because I knocked on his door and asked him to taste my wine. He told me, 'This is good wine—but you have to wait, and you have to believe in it.'"