Abruzzo-cadabra—pulling great out of seemingly nowhere

When was the last time you sought out a wine from Abruzzo, never mind kept some at-the-ready? The truth is, it’s never been a default drinking option beyond satisfying a curiosity or including it in an educational tasting. The closest it’s come to staplehood are some fairly mass bottlings of Montepulciano. But Tiberio from Abruzzo is making your next go-to wine.

A spell of place and time

Abruzzo is the little round region on Italy’s Adriatic coast between its Achilles heel of Molise and its bulging calf of the Marche. It’s easy to remember on auditory pep alone: the surrounding provinces of Marche, Molise, Umbria, and Lazio have a soft, indistinct drag of too-long pyjama bottoms. However, peppy little Abruzzo has some big problems. The main one is Italy’s ever-haunting “you historically suck” reminder: wine regulations that encourage quantity over quality. Here’s how it’s worked in Abruzzo:

  1. Their mandated pergola-style vine training means more bunches per vine, so high yields.
  2. The allowable yields in the quality DOPs are very high (up to 100 hl/ha versus 56 for Barolo and as low as 35 for some Grand Cru Burgundy).
  3. Cooperatives dominate the production, with four main ones responsible for 80% of the DOP wines. Now, co-ops aren’t inherently bad—some are excellent, in fact, and others have saved regions from inevitable collapse. Nonetheless, what’s usually necessary for fine wine gets diluted in co-ops.
  4. Finally, 70% of the total production goes either to these co-ops or to other Italian (and some French) regions for blending.

A potion for greatness

It’s no new tale: abused underdog child with scar on forehead saves the world… Wait, I mean, bulk region has bad quality reputation, but no one cares because they keep selling their wine so it’s never a problem. Then, a scrupulous, passionate visionary recognizes quality potential in terroir and grape stock. They bring international experience, energy, and ideas to the sea of mediocrity and POOF, great wine emerges.

Enter Cristiana Tiberio e famiglia.

At the turn of the century (I love saying that now that we’re in the 2000s), Cristiana’s father, Riccardo, discovered and bought an eight-hectare vineyard. Now, eight hectares isn’t going to change the world, or at least not winegrowing in Abruzzo.

Or won’t it?

Tiberio Trebbiano Abruzzese pergola vines in autumn

This vineyard was no ordinary plot, and Riccardo was no ordinary paesano. At the time, he was the export manager for one of those well-known co-ops (whose name is remarkably impossible to find). The vines were 60+-year-old Trebbiano Abruzzese grapes. “Trebbiano?” you think. “Big deal.” But it is. The Abruzzese version is not the same as the widely planted Trebbiano from Tuscany. This is serious quality stuff giving much more structure, expression, depth, and complexity. With those eight hectares, Riccardo bought another 31 in hilly territory with a mind to plant them.

Wizards are bred in the bone

Riccardo wasn’t alone. Son Antonio and daughter Cristiana came into the fold to manage the vineyards and make the wine. Cristiana just happened to have a chemistry degree, which is pretty handy when your dad suddenly leaves his sweet gig and buys a bunch of vineyard land. While it was foregone that she would take over the winemaking, the usual bit of obligatory international experience wasn’t enough for her. She went and worked in the best white-winemaking regions on the planet with the leaders in their zones. To name a humble few:

Cristiana and Antonio Tiberio of Abruzzo

Oh, and because making Abruzzo’s best wine isn’t enough, she also teaches college chemistry and sommelier courses to budding magicians.

An enchanted land

On their 31 other undulating hectares (giving magnificent exposure, altitude, and soil variations), the family experimented with local and international varieties before settling on Montepulciano and Aglianico for the reds, then the Trebb’, Moscato di Castiglione, and Pecorino for the whites.

They matched each variety to its terroir and planted all vineyards with massal selection. This method takes cutting from the best performing from older vines and propagates them in a vineyard environment. It’s different than clonal isolation, which plants out one clone to an entire plot. While the Trebb’ Abruzzese has redefined the area’s potential and become Tiberio’s default flagship, their other wines are the real cave of secrets.

For starters, Pecorino (also a great-sounding word) only re-emerged in the mid-1990s after having almost disappeared. Tiberio’s version is a surprise: it’s indescribably perfect—just the right heft, acid support, and length, with an elegant but obvious dance of sage, rosemary, green fig, peach, melon, steel, and stone. It’s easy to drink and easy to like without being easy (like most Pinot Grigio or 90s-era Chardonnay). Pecorino can easily replace Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, or Viognier.

The Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is another revelation. Many are either soupy and soft or simple and light. Tiberio’s comes from 50+-year-old vines with 50 hl/ha yields and sees no oak. It shows medium body with plenty of verve, and offers aromas of bing cherry, blueberry, flint and violet.

Tiberio Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo

Another delight is the Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, a sort of dark rosé from 100% Montepulciano that is serious enough for a meal but sidesteps the snobs by doing its best work cold and fresh.

The audience reaction

Why do magic if no one is watching? None other than Matt Kramer of the Wine Spectator, a bona fide Italian expert, called the Pecorino a “where have you been all my life?” wine. That was after admitting he’d never heard of the region (Colline Pescaresi), the winery, or the grape variety (this was in 2004). Before knowing what it was, he called it “really dazzling stuff, zingy with minerality… and an impressively dense texture.”

And Decanter and Stephen Tanzer called Tiberio “one of Italy’s rising stars” and “one of Italy’s finest wine producers”.

Just as impressively, the handful of journalists who have written about Tiberio each raved about a different wine. For Mr. Kramer, it was the Pecorino. Kurtis Kolt of The Georgia Straight went wide-eyed over the Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. All writers go deep into the remarkable Trebbiano Abruzzese from the original plot.

One trick at a time

It would be nice to say “Abruzzo is going to explode,” but we know that’s not true. Nonetheless, “better” has to start somewhere, and Tiberio is among a few doing it. Next time you’re looking for wine, don’t buy Pecorino or Trebb’ Abruzzese or Montepulciano for the sake of the region, the winery, or Cristiana. Buy it for yourself. You’ll want to keep some up your sleeve at all times.

AbruzzoAdriaticAglianicoAndrew JeffordAntonioBaroloBurgundyCerasuoloChablisChampagneChardonnayClare ValleyColline PescaresiCoulée de SerrantCristianaDecanterEgon MullerGeorgia StraightGrand CruItalyJacques SelosseKurtis KoltLazioLoireMarchemassalMatt KramerMoliseMontepulcianoMoscatoMoselNicolas JolyPecorinopergolaPinot GrigioPinot GrisRiccardoStephen TanzerTiberioTrebbiano AbruzzeseUmbriaViognierwineWine Spectator

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