When I was planning my early September trip to Abruzzo, I heard this refrain from a couple of Italian wine pros: “You must meet Cristiana!”
Cristiana Tiberio is a marches-to-her-own-instinct wine producer who, for more than a decade, has run Tiberio, her family’s meticulously managed boutique estate that has made waves in central Italy.
At 47, she exudes a quiet, determined energy as she explains the lengths to which Tiberio goes for “purity.” I thought I’d seen everything when it came to winegrowers working in tune with their vineyards, but Cristiana takes it to another level.
The estate began in 2000 when her father, Riccardo, then export manager for a local wine cooperative, bought a pair of abandoned, overgrown, pergola-trained Montelpulciano and Trebbiano vineyards totaling nearly 20 acres, along with 74 acres of wheat fields and forest in the calcareous hills of the Cugnoli area, situated between Abruzzo’s two defining massifs of Gran Sasso and Maiella.
Riccardo was particularly excited because the Trebbiano vines were entirely Trebbiano Abruzzese—a rare, delicate, traditional variety that was largely replaced in the second half of the 20th century by heartier Trebbiano Toscano and Bombino Bianco, which now make up most Trebbiano d’Abruzzo D.O.C. wines.
“People think that Trebbiano is all one family, but it’s not,” says Cristiana, walking through that old vineyard behind the Tiberio farmhouse and winery. “They are different varieties with different DNA.”
The most noted current examples of Trebbiano Abruzzese wines standing head and shoulders above Trebbiano ordinare are those of Valentini, the region’s most celebrated white wine producer.
“Trebbiano d’Abruzzo can be super-cheap wine with no flavor or really great wine,” Cristiana adds. “I want to make wines that precisely reflect the place and vintage.”
To achieve her ends, she uses methods that are extreme in their rigor and, when considered together, possibly unique.
In the vineyards, Tiberio does not prune or plow in the summer, and doesn’t irrigate or fertilize at all.
Her belief derives from the years after her father bought the vineyards. She and her brother, Antonio, helped clear away brush, pruned the vines every winter and waited. It wasn’t until the fifth season that the vineyards produced enough fruit to harvest. This rebirth convinced Cristiana that the vines could find their natural balance.
“We learned from the vines,” she enthuses. “They built a system to support themselves over the years, and I thought we shouldn’t add anything.”
Well, I wondered, seeing as they already had sheep on the property, had they considered biodynamics to rebuild soil life?
“No,” she responded resolutely. “Bringing other elements from another soil or subsoil is not a good idea. It’s super important that the vines express what they get from the roots and these subsoils.”
Whoa, I thought, that’s some purista for you.
The only additions these organic-certified vineyards do receive are minute doses of copper mixture and sulfur to ward off mold and mildews during the growing season.
The hands-off approach is carried over to the additional 55 acres of newer vineyards the family planted with a massal selection of Montepulciano, Trebbiano Abruzzese and Pecorino, the latter propagated from five vines that they discovered here.
As a teenager, Cristiana says she developed keen interests in both white wine and chemistry, which she studied at university—a choice she feels she has to defend sometimes to others who take a natural approach to viticulture.
“To some people, chemistry is a bad word,” says Cristiana, who keeps a small wine lab in the farmhouse’s kitchen. “But it’s not. Chemistry is knowledge.”
After graduating, she worked as an intern for renowned white wine producers outside of Italy: Anselme Selosse of Jacques Selosse in Champagne and Riesling maestro Egon Müller in Germany’s Mosel. Then she returned home.
In the early years, Riccardo, who had more conventional ideas about winemaking, planted small amounts of international varieties, but Cristiana replaced them with cuttings of the varieties found on site. Father and daughter also experimented with vinifying in cement tanks and amphora and aging wine in oak barrels. But Cristiana wanted to go in a different direction and, again, she prevailed.
“It was a fight of generations, but I am not someone who gives up,” she said. “My idea from the beginning was: No fear, express the vineyards, work in stainless steel.”
In 2008, Riccardo turned the estate ownership over to his children, and Cristiana soon fully took over winemaking. Antonio, 45, manages the vineyards, but Cristiana sets the overall direction of the estate.
Tiberio is in fact an all-steel winery, using only stainless tanks for vinifying and initial aging. But Cristiana’s most daring touch has been to work without a wine press. Actually, she has a modern bladder press, but all the wine bottled by Tiberio comes from free-run juice. After that, the pressed wine is sold off in bulk.
“With pressing, the wines lose some precision and crystallinity,” she says. “The real meaning of terroir lives in the noble part of the grape—the first layers of the skin. If you press too much, you can cover the nature of the terroir.”
Tiberio produces two Trebbiano d’Abruzzos. One is blended from the grapes of the original vineyard with those of newer vineyards.
The other—her flagship called Fonte Canale—is made from Tiberio’s 700 own-rooted Trebbiano vines and aged two years in bottles. The up to 250 cases made each year are sparingly allocated to prestigious restaurants, from Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena to Marea in New York, Alinea in Chicago and Aquarello in San Francsico. The Fonte Canale retails in the U.S. for about $65 per bottle; Tiberio's introductory Trebbiano and Montepulciano d'Abruzzo are available for just under $20 per bottle.
As Cristiana walks back to the winery, she reflects on the past two decades and the long process of discovery.
“We came to the idea that an old vineyard doesn’t belong to the owner of the land,” she says. “It belongs to the community—to everybody.” It helps explain the past.
“I am not a nostalgic person,” she adds, with a measured, yogic calm. “But the past can help bring us into the future—without stress.”