Roberto Di Meo doesn’t run a typical winery that simply makes, bottles and sells wine. His approach to winemaking, in the quiet southern Italian hills of Campania’s Irpinia region, 40 miles east of Naples, seems at times like that of a tinkerer or an antiquarian.
Working in tiny Salza Irpina (pop. 800) with local varieties, particularly the white Fiano, Di Meo does things no one else does with aging in pursuit of hidden flavors and nuance.
“It is beautiful to see what happens with time,” he says with a broad smile.
Consider that this year, Di Meo—a white-bearded 56-year-old—released the 2013 vintage of his single-vineyard Fiano di Avellino Alessandra, long-aged on its lees in steel tanks. Just two years ago, he released the 2003 vintage of his similarly but even longer-aged Erminia Di Meo Fiano di Avellino.
His unreleased gems go back even further. The 1993 vintage of the Erminia Di Meo Fiano still sits in the cellar of his family’s 18th-century hunting lodge–turned–country house. Di Meo claims it hasn’t reached its potential!
“It is not the moment yet to release it,” he says with a chuckle. “It was a beautiful year.”
Di Meo, the son of a noble farming family, probably qualifies as an eccentric, though he’s also a fanatic for quality—and a joyful one at that.
During a late summer tour of the region, I listened to Di Meo and tasted his golden Fianos amid antiques and oil paintings as light jazz played in the background.
Di Meo produces two other Fiano di Avellinos from the 50 acres on the estate: an entry-level Fiano, released within a year or two after harvest, and the single-vineyard Colle di Cerri, fermented and aged in Burgundy oak barrels.
Using vineyards he leases and manages throughout Irpinia, he also makes reds from Aglianico and whites from Falanghina and Greco di Tufo, bringing production to 50,000 cases annually. He ages Greco for a long time too (his 2008 Greco di Tufo Vittoria Riserva was released earlier this year) and excels with the variety. (At 90 points and $27, his 2016 Greco di Tufo G earned a place on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2017.)
Still, the biggest piece of his heart belongs to Fiano.
“I am a Fiano lover,” Di Meo exclaims on a walk through clay-limestone vineyard parcels draped over a southern-facing hillside, at altitudes up to 1,800 feet. “It is definitely one of the grandest wines in the world for its capacity for longevity, for complexity and pairings across a great spectrum.”
As I wrote earlier this year, Fiano is a variety that changes with the terroir and reveals dramatic layers over time, including mineral, Riesling-like petrol, smoky gunflint and toasted nuts.
From what I tasted at Di Meo, after nearly two decades, Fiano can also develop into a slightly oxidated version of what Italians call a vino di meditazione (a wine of meditation). After nearly 30 years (that 1993 Erminia Di Meo he served from a plastic bottle), Fiano rolls on the tongue with a finish like fino Sherry.
Releasing aged Italian whites is a radical idea—especially to Italians. Doing it in Italy’s South, where whites have customarily been drunk young and fresh within the year, is close to heresy.
“Until a few years ago, it was impossible to sell old vintages of white wine,” says Di Meo. “This project was to help consumers understand that after a year or two, the wines from here begin to develop.”
“COVID accelerated this awareness,” he adds. “Being at home, with more time eating and drinking, meant the average consumer could spend more time deepening their [wine] knowledge.”
Di Meo’s journey in wine began as a youth in Avellino: “From when I was little, I had a passion for wine,” he says.
While still a teenager, he began planting and replanting family vineyards in Salza Irpina. In the early 1980s, he and his siblings—brother Generoso, a doctor, and sister Erminia (who died in 2012)—decided to launch their own wine company.
Di Meo studied enology and, at 20, led his first small commercial harvest of Fiano. “When we started, there were five producers in Irpinia,” he says. “Now there are more than 300.”
Once dominated by the historic Mastroberardino winery, Irpinia has indeed become a hotbed of small and medium quality-wine producers. The area offers a wide range of soils and grape varieties and a relatively cool growing season that seldom lacks water.
On my recent tour of the area, I also visited producers who have arisen in recent decades, such as the Basso olive oil family’s Villa Raiano, which produces three single-vineyard Fianos, and Donnachiara, run by the charismatic Ilaria Petitto with enologist Riccardo Cotarella, which made Wine Spectator’s Top 100 of 2017 for its 2015 Aglianico Irpinia (90, $18).
Yet from the start, Di Meo has stood out from his peers with his own bold and distinctive methods. For all his Fianos, he has used some degree of maceration on the grape’s thick skins and has fermented in small batches, both with indigenous and selected yeasts. His calling card has been aging on lees for longer and longer stretches.
And he hasn’t stopped at wine. In addition to working with a Northern Italian distillery to make a line of grappas and brandies, in the 1990s, Di Meo began producing a pair of liqueurs from his grandmothers’ familial recipes. In 2021, after selecting flowers, herbs and roots from Irpinia and lemons from the Amalfi Coast, he produced his own version of London Dry Gin.
“I like to always experiment,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing. You are never in monotony.”
Thanks to winemakers like Di Meo, neither are we.