Cristiana Tiberio’s star has for years been on a meteoric rise, but careful study and many years of patient work lie behind the evolution of her family’s estate. Tiberio was established in 2000 near the town of Cugnoli in the lesser-known Italian region of Abruzzo, inspired by an old vineyard that her father came across of super-rare, old-vine Trebbiano Abruzzese, a white grape native to the area, best known by the wine produced by cult winemaker Valentini. These then-70-year-old vines, trained high in a double pergola to withstand the historical impact of snow during winter months, were practically dead, but she and her brother patiently coaxed them back to health over several years — without a single harvest to show for the efforts of their early years. Today, that vineyard produces one of Italy’s finest white wines: Fonte Canale, a chiseled, crystalline wine with an immense capacity to age.
Tiberio only produces wines from grapes found in their specific sub-zone of Abruzzo — Trebbiano Abruzzese, Pecorino, and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo — and Cristiana, a trained chemist, is deeply passionate about the hyper-local, attributing the success of her wines to years of careful observation, discovering the distinctive characteristics of their site, vines, and environment. Her approach borders on fanatical. She adds no cover crops to allow the natural grasses that emerge spontaneously beneath specific training systems to thrive, bottles the lees at the end of fermentation to observe their characteristics and how they have adapted to ever-drier conditions, and divides fermentations by specific biotypes.
The results are spectacular: deeply thoughtful and precisely made wines, crafted from carefully tended sites, intended to preserve heritage and capture the essence of a place. The evidence of her success is in every glass. Below, Cristiana shares some of the philosophies that have informed her winemaking.
Ed note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity
1. Abruzzo is off the beaten path for most wine lovers, so can you start by giving us a little bit of background about the region?
Abruzzo is a central region on the east coast of Italy. It’s beautiful, with national parks, marine protected areas — the environment in Abruzzo is a big thing. We have the Adriatic Sea; we have the two highest Apennine peaks at almost 3,000 meters of altitude; we have a glacier 20 kilometers from us. It’s a region with a lot of diversity in terms of geology, climates, environment, [and] crops. Approaching Abruzzo means to discover details of any single area. The results of the grapes, the work in viticulture is very different, so when we talk about the Abruzzo region and Abruzzo wine, it’s very important to be precise and understand where the vineyards and the wineries are located.
2. Can you tell us more about where Tiberio is specifically?
We are located in the high hills of Cugnoli, between the Maiella and the Gran Sasso mountain peaks, so it’s a cooler climate. The main character of our area is the length of the growing season having this benefit from the mountains with a lot of difference of temperatures between day and night. The hottest it can be is 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), especially recently, but on that same day, we can have 18 degrees C (64 degrees F) in the night. This brings a lot of refreshment to the sap flow, to the energy of the work of the vine, to the roots, and these extend the length of the growing season.
3. What grape varieties do you focus on?
We are focused, extremely focused — I would like to say obsessed — with the native grape varieties. I want to be more precise: not just the native grape varieties, but the real native aspects of these varieties. We are in a cool area, and for us it’s very important to respect the vines and the fruit which are native to this geology and these climatic conditions, through massale selection. Any decision I make for my soil, my vineyards, or my wine depends on the respect of our heritage, identity, and character of our terroir. That’s the reason why we work with Trebbiano Abruzzese, Pecorino, and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and I don’t intend to bring Passerina, Cococciola, or other regional grapes here, even though I like them.
4. And how long has your family been farming this site?
We arrived here at the end of the ‘90s. My family is from Abruzzo, but from another area on the coast. We moved here because, in 1999, our father discovered these old vineyards of authentic Trebbiano Abruzzese, which is the original grape from Abruzzo. There are several Trebbiano grapes in Italy, but the Trebbiano Abruzzese disappeared over the years because it’s a very delicate variety, difficult to grow. So, our father discovered this old vineyard — at that time it was 70 years old, but it was considered pretty dead — but a few vines produced fruit so he could see a few bunches. This is the reason why we purchased the vineyard, because we want to try to save and to revive the Trebbiano Abruzzese. It was a matter of heritage and tradition.
5. So, how long did it take to bring these vines back to life?
My brother and I spent five years working in that vineyard. The weeds covered the vineyard. We restarted pruning the vineyard, very gently because you cannot prune a vineyard that has not been pruned for 15 years just in one pass. You have to go ahead in the process really slowly in order to guarantee the sap flow; the capability to survive. And it was a very stressful period because it was five years — five winters with pruning, five harvests with no fruit. But in these five years, we had the chance to make a genetic study of all the vines.
6. How did five years without making wine in this old vineyard, from which you now make your Fonte Canale wine, shape your winemaking philosophy?
Studying the vines, the genetics, and the roots, the patrimony of this vineyard showed up step by step. I trained myself discovering all these aspects. And I even trained my sensibility in viticulture — I understood that making wines is not about my style in drinking, what I would like to do, my favorite things to do, what I feel comfortable doing in winemaking. It is about following the needs of the vines, the needs of the fruit, and the character of the native grapes because any native grape has a different character and needs in terms of winemaking process and choices.
7. You currently bottle three single-vineyard wines: Fonte Canale from the Trebbiano Abruzzese, Archivio and Colle Vota from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. How do you decide what makes a single-vineyard wine?
The identity of the vineyard needs to dominate even the vintage. Otherwise, it’s not a single vineyard, it’s just a vineyard — a good vineyard, which is a great thing as well, but that doesn’t justify the idea of the single vineyard. The Archivio comes from the oldest 70-year-old pergola vines we purchased — specifically four different Montepulciano biotypes. These are different behaviors of the same grape because of different adaptations to different soil profiles. Colle Vota is a younger vineyard we planted in 2000 and has been another great experience for me. Because usually a single vineyard logically comes from old vines, but it’s not the case of the Colle Vota. Sometimes making wine means to be able to step aside from your intention and your idea and just follow the direction that the vineyard indicates to you. The tannins are so smooth, the color is a lighter color, and the flavor profile has more complexity. It’s completely different from a classic Montepulciano wine. Fonte Canale is the same. It’s not just about the pedigree of the vineyard, but the result of the wine. It is so unique, so flinty, pure, and pristine — which is always Fonte Canale, even in the hardest vintage.
8. What is your winemaking style?
Through the years of work in the vineyards, we had a lot of time to discover our terroir. In this area, the pristine aspect of the fruit is one of the main characteristics, so I decided to work with the stainless steel. Because for me, it’s the most suitable element for this terroir, representing the pureness of the fruit. We use a small amount of oak just for the Archivio because of the specific needs of two biotypes of Montepulciano. We destem because, for our grape varieties, the stems are not suitable; they are too ashy, too green. We don’t crush the white grape varieties, just the free-run juice. I love the free-run juice because I love to work with the purest part of the juice. We let it decant for one night and then we wait for the fermentation with indigenous yeast. I want to bring precision and sharpness to the wines, which is a condition of our terroir where the landscape is all very clean. It’s not an easy area, but we often have a very clean landscape with dazzling light because we are very close to the mountains. So, that’s why I feel that the stainless steel is very close to the terroir.
9. Tell me a little bit about when you decided you wanted to be a winemaker.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve been passionate about wine. I grew up in a family with not just passion but the culture for wine, so wine was a part of our meal every day — not just on a special occasion. I’ve been lucky because at some point, a friend of my father arrived from Alba in Piemonte. And this gentleman used to be a good friend of Bruno Giacosa. I was surprised because we were drinking always the Nebbiolo grape made by the same person but with different names on the label: Barolo, Barbaresco, and the different crus, so the Barolo Vigna Rionda, Barbaresco Vigna Gallina, Rocche di Falletto, and so on. And these wines were so different. And so, I understood at that time that wines were not sugar becoming alcohol, or not just a matter of grapes. Wine was not a narrow segment but was our complex, infinite world made up of details.
10. You speak in the voice of a scientist: observation, time, study. How does science influence what you do and your approach to farming and making wine?
I already wanted to become a winemaker, so I decided to study chemistry because I wanted to make wine. And chemistry offered me a scientific background to be able to connect different aspects of the environment. People think that science is about manipulating the environment — changing the destiny of the environment — but it can also offer us a point of view. I’ve been educated to observe, to try to understand, to respect, to find the connection between different aspects of the same environment. Why in one vineyard do I have snails, and in another vineyard I have bees? There is a scientific aspect, and chemistry gave me this approach of observation to try to understand, to study. Not to manipulate but to understand the needs of your fruit. You know, the fruit has a memory, and as a farmer, as a winemaker, I wanted to recognize and protect the memory of the fruit and find it in my wine.