The first thing I noticed about Leopardo Felici was his footwear—the white retro Rivieras slip-ons completing his outfit of white slacks and a fitted blue patterned shirt.
As Felici, chic and smiling, descended a staircase at a countryside hotel in the Italian Marche for a private tasting of his Andrea Felici wines, I thought he could be the stylish establishment's director.
At 34, Felici is a rare blend: a suave and charismatic wine lover who is also a serious young farmer and winemaker from tiny Apiro (pop. 2,400). Under his direction since 2008, his family's small estate has been lauded in Italy for producing some of the most elegant examples of the Marche's signature grape, Verdicchio.
"We want to make just Verdicchio," said Felici as we tasted several vintages of his two wines—his basic Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore cuvée and his single-vineyard cru Il Cantico della Figura, which is fermented and aged 12 months on lees in cement tanks, then spends six months in bottle before release (at under $30 in the U.S.). "We want to make the top wine from Verdicchio."
The next morning, I drive out to the Felici home and winery, which once served as a local general store, dance hall and telephone booth when electricity came to Apiro in 1957.
This morning, the tall, husky Felici wears worn camouflage shorts and a T-shirt as he walks through the gently sloping vineyards, which include about 12 acres of family vines and another 10 acres under lease. All are farmed organically and meticulously kept, down to the fine adjustments made in the leaf cover in response to the summer heat.
This small farming town, nestled at nearly 1,700 feet, has one of the area's highest, coolest microclimates. Hovering above the landscape is the 4,700-foot peak of Monte San Vicino that separates Apiro and the Castelli di Jesi appellation from Matelica and its smaller wine zone.
Pure Verdicchio wines are particular to the Marche, and difficult to describe, but they are generally marked by a rich mineral feel, citrus or green fruit, salinity and a nutty bitterness. In Felici's hands, Apiro's terroir mixes all those elements in wines that are noted for being vibrant and fresh.
"Apiro is like a cru," he says. "We have cool breezes from the sea and the mountain. The wines always have their identity."
Felici is a fourth-generation winemaker whose grandfather sold his wine in bulk to local families and large bottlers. Felici's father, Andrea, now 78, began the conversion to organic farming and modernized the winery, first by removing the stored animal feed and the family's salumi dangling from the rafters and by replacing old moldy wine casks with stainless steel and concrete.
In 2002, as Andrea Felici was preparing to bottle wine under his own label for the first time, his son asked to join him. But the elder Felici wouldn't hear of it. "My father told me, 'Before you make wine, you must have an idea of the kind of wine you want to make. He told me, 'Go around the world and get experience.'"
Leopardo did that, working four years in high-end wine service, first at Gordon Ramsay's Savoy Grill in London and then at Florence's famed Enoteca Pinchiorri, which holds a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its wine list.
Felici's eyes were opened tasting great wines, from Château d'Yquem Sauternes to Didier Dagueneau's Pouilly-Fumés. But his wine epiphany came from sampling the whites of a legendary Italian estate in Friuli. "Jermann was, for me, my teacher," he says. "The wines were just a translation of the grapes and the soil—that was it."
Returning home in 2006, Felici joined his father before taking the helm of the winery two vintages later.
Felici has continued the path to quality. He is a fanatic at harvesttime, insisting that grapes be carefully handled "like eggs." He has introduced temperature controls for fermentations (most of which are done in vats outdoors), replaced commercial yeasts with selections of the best strains from family vineyards, and obtained air-conditioned shipping containers in which to age the annual 4,400-case production for months.
Felici says his dream is to age some wines up to 10 years before release—a proposition that is now too costly. "Only Italian people know you can age Verdicchio like Nebbiolo," he says.
Though Felici seems to be a font of inexhaustible energy, his last harvest flirted with tragedy. In September 2014, just weeks before his wife gave birth to their first child, Felici was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. After his daughter's birth, harvest and vinification, he underwent six months of chemotherapy. Last spring, with the cancer in remission, he headed back out to his vineyards.
"It taught me that in life there are no problems," he says with a sweeping hand gesture. "There are only solutions."