I don’t know about you, but personally I can’t help but think that any family called Tiberio has wine in its destiny. After all, the most famous Tiberio (Tiberius, in English) of all was ancient Rome’s second Emperor (Tiberius was the adopted son of Augustus, Rome’s first Emperor) who lived from 42 bce to 37 ce and was well-known for his life-long enthusiasm about wine. So much so that his soldiers modified his full name, Tiberius Claudius Nero, into the nickname of Biberius Caldius Mero (“he who drinks wine warm and pure”). Recognized as a shrewd administrator and good leader who governed Rome well leaving it much richer and stronger, Tiberio knew how to enjoy life: sick and tired of the shenanigans of the city’s senate, he retired fairly early on to Capri (not exactly the worst place in the world to retire to: the guy clearly had his thinking cap on at all times) where he continued to increase his knowledge about wine (his comments about the island’s wines are well documented too).
Fast-forward to today and another Tiberio who also clearly knew, and knows, what he is doing. Actually, I’m not sure if Riccardo Tiberio, back in the late 1990s, knew of his famous Roman namesake’s love for wine or even of his nickname: but for sure, Riccardo Tiberio did know plenty about Abruzzo’s grapes and wine. And it served him remarkably well on one not just any given Sunday. Puttering about the countryside (I write “puttering” firmly tongue in cheek, given that Tiberio is an avid Harley-Davidson enthusiast), he came across a property on sale near the pretty town of Cugnoli, an Abruzzo mountain town not far removed from the mountains of the Majella and the Gran Sasso. As I have written many times before (and was in fact the first wine writer to ever chronicle), the modern-day easy riding Tiberio immediately realized that the white grapes hanging around (literally) in the vineyards were of the ultra-rare Trebbiano Abruzzese (the variety with which Valentini makes one of Italy’s best wines); and so it was that he decided to buy the property, quit his job, and begin to make his own wine. Tiberio’s discovery was not a minor one: Trebbiano Abruzzese is a member of the Trebbiano group of grapes, all of which are unrelated save for Trebbiano Abruzzese and Trebbiano Spoletino but that are lumped together in a group of grapes that share similar features (long bunches, hardiness and disease resistance, late ripening personality, high acidity, only white grapes) but is by far the best of the bunch (no pun intended). It is in fact one of Italy’s best white wine grapes, though it is now unfortunately very rare (most Trebbiano d’Abruzzo wines are made with blends of Bombino Bianco, Mostosa and Trebbiano Toscano).
Tiberio (I mean the winemaker, not the Emperor) must have also been born under a lucky star, because with a similar jewel to bank on, he got off to a running start in the wine sweepstakes. But luck has a way of cutting in many directions: not only did he stumble upon an extremely high-quality wine grape very few wineries in Abruzzo own vines of anymore, but his two children, son Antonio (viticulture) and daughter Cristiana (winemaker) are remarkably gifted, passionate and hard-working too. Two vine chips off the old block, Tiberio entrusted the fledgling estate (founded in 2000) to his two children, and the sibling duo have made it so he has never had to regret his decision once. Over the course of twenty years, the siblings have turned the young estate into one of Italy’s coolest; today, the winery’s thirty hectares are the source of wines sought after by restaurants, collectors and wine lovers all over the world. And while the estate’s Pecorino, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, and various Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines each have their ardent fans, it is the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale that is universally considered the winery’s best wine. Arguably or not, it is one of Italy’s ten-fifteen best white wines.
The Fonte Canale vineyard
The Fonte Canale vineyard is a specific 1.2 hectares plot of 80-90 years old Trebbiano Abruzzese vines growing within a larger expanse of slightly younger (60 years old) vines of the same variety. But age is not the only differentiating factor at work here, and this helps explain Fonte Canale’s uniqueness. For one, this old plot of ungrafted vines is characterized by a unique biotype of Trebbiano Abruzzese (named the Fonte Canale biotype), for the wine grape has adapted throughout the decades to this specific part of Abruzzo. Over time, the grapevine has mutated so much that it now looks and behaves differently from other Trebbiano Abruzzese grapevines, including those planted in other sections of the Tiberio estate (and its remarkable how much deeper and more complex the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale wine is compared to the other still very good Trebbiano d’Abruzzo wine made at the estate). For example, the Fonte Canale vines usually ripen fully about a week after the “normal” Trebbiano Abruzzese vines. Besides the biotype, another difference between the Trebbiano Abruzzese vines grown at Tiberio is that while all the vines are planted at about 380 meters above sea level on a clay-calcareous soil with a subsoil of compacted sands, the Fonte Canale plot has a noteworthy water table that ensures the vines pull through eventual droughty conditions much better. Walk amidst the beautiful Fonte Canale vines and you’ll notice the thick old trunks are planted at fairly low-density spacing (only 2,500 plants per hectare, which was the common way to go about things in Italian farming circles decades ago; in fact, many of Italy’s best wines are made from old grapevines spaced at no more than 4-5,000 feet per hectare). The Tiberios had to patiently nurture the old vines back to health and productivity, as at the time of the estate’s sale the vineyard had been largely abandoned; and while the other Trebbiano Abruzzese vines of the property began producing grapes in 2004, the older vines growing in the parcel known as Fonte Canale only began doing so in 2007. It was with the 2012 vintage that all the old vines of the Fonte Canale plot finally began producing grapes once again (so Tiberio’s 2012 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale is the first bottling ever made with grapes from all the vines that make up the Fonte Canale plot).
The old Fonte Canale vines are trained with the double pergola abruzzese (or Abruzzo canopy) system, a very unique, ancient version of the modern pergola that helps protect the grapes, given that Trebbiano Abruzzese is a variety characterized by a very thin skin. Exactly when the grapes are harvested depends on the characteristics of the growing season, but usually the Fonte Canale grapes are picked in late September [that may surprise some readers given the late-ripening reputation of the members of the Trebbiano grapes group (that are often picked in November), but the combination of climate change, the humidity-filled environment of the canopy, and the variety’s aforementioned rather thin skin means this specific Trebbiano variety gets picked slightly sooner than you might think]. The estate practices organic farming, without using any commercial organic additives or preparations obtained from other areas.
Listen to Cristiana Tiberio describe her winemaking and it seems like you’ve been whisked away to somewhere on the Saar or the Mosel (perhaps not all that strange, given Cristiana’s love for the wines of Egon Muller and JJ Prum). Only free-run juice and native vineyard yeasts are used, no malo is done (the liquid’s pH is very low, as it rarely reaches a value of three, and is therefore an environment not conducive to the growth of malic bacteria), and aging occurs in stainless steel and glass bottle for eighteen months (in other words, no oak). Last but not least, the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale is bottled unfined and unfiltered. Any vintage of the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale will showcase laser-like, enamel-shattering acidity, with plenty of mineral thrust and herb scented goodness. Depending on the year, an array of different aromas and flavours are common, including notes of green apple, white peach, lemon curd, almond paste, Kaiser pear, jasmine, lemon verbena, mint, thyme, sea breeze, talc, chalk, and just about so much minerality to make any geologist swoon. A note of grilled hazelnut develops with age and is variety-specific (specific to Trebbiano Abruzzese: Trebbiano Toscano and Trebbiano Spoletino wines, for example, never exhibit it). It is a wine that tastes remarkably similar to a grand cru Chablis (depending on the vintage, think Blanchots or Les Preuses more than Le Clos or Valmur), though in some vintages the wine is more correctly described as an ideal blend of Chablis and Puligny (and in 2012 it takes on elements of Chassagne, even Meursault) or of Chablis and Wehlen. A Trebbiano variety that behaves like a crossing of Chardonnay and Riesling: no wonder Fonte Canale is special.
The wines in this tasting
Tiberio 2019 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale 94+
Pale green-tinged yellow. Pure crushed rock, fresh citrus fruits and flinty minerality on the inviting nose, gaining noteworthy intensity with aeration. Fresh and juicy, complex and very refined, but manages the neat trick of being simultaneously thick and weightless. Best today on the mounting finish, which saturates the palate with iodiney minerality and repeating lemon and lime flavours; strikes me as rounder than usual (“rounder” with Fonte Canale is a very relative term) most likely because of the year’s low yields and cooler weather that increased hang time and in so doing, blessed the wine with greater complexity and a less angular personality. Even at this early age, the 2019 Fonte Canale still conveys the essential style of the vintage, a direct result of the area’s growing season character traits. Very different from the showier 2018, but each will have its fans. Drinking window: 2026-2035.
Tiberio 2018 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale 96+
Good full straw-green colour. Orchard and white stone fruit are complemented by spicy notes of ginger and white pepper and complicated by a sweeter note of lemon curd. Easy to drink but deep and complex, with flavours similar to the aromas and a noteworthy saline quality that adds further freshness (not that the Fonte Canale ever needs more of it than it already has) on the long, lime-accented finish. Still very young, this is developing more slowly than I initially thought; today the 2018 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale strikes me for an almost tannic personality that adds size and mouthfeel to a very impressive, tangy drinking experience. Could one day rank as the best Fonte Canale ever made, hence my plus sign attached to the already high score. Drinking window: 2025-2033.
Tiberio 2017 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale 94
Deep straw yellow with obvious golden highlights; this is obviously darker and more golden in colour than any other Fonte Canale ever made, a reflection of the very hot year. Then, given what I have just told you, surprisingly fresh on the nose and in the mouth with hints of white peach, balsamic oils, white flowers, flint, almond paste and grilled hazelnuts. Closes long with saline nuances, harmonious acidity and waves of dried and fresh apricot that keep coming back and forth at you. The 2017 Fonte Canale has always been a much better wine than the hot year had any right to give; or, if you prefer, it’s truly a wine that punches above its vintage class. Drinking window: 2022-2029.
Tiberio 2016 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale 97
Vibrant straw yellow with green tinges. Drop-dead gorgeous aromas of crushed stone, lime cordial, white and yellow flowers, complicated by almond paste, white pepper, and lemongrass. Enters smoky and flinty, then turns tangy and lemony in the middle, finishing long and walking a tightrope of suave mineral freshness and outstanding acid-fruit balance. A truly knockout Fonte Canale that has done nothing but improve over the years, I probably should have scored it higher right from the time I first tasted it at the winery many years ago. A dead ringer for one of the better Chablis Blanchots you might come across. Drinking window: 2022-2034.
Tiberio 2015 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale 96
Pale, bright medium straw yellow. Fresh aromas of grapefruit, lemon peel, and yellow fruit plus exotic, almost aromatic nuanced notes of Islay Single Malt, pineapple and mango. Enters and continues very vertical in the mouth, with an enamel-shattering acidity (in my experience, always the 2015 Fonte Canale’s trademark) that has somewhat gentrified with the passage of time. The aftertaste is long and generous, boasting noteworthy cut and clarity, and a lingering gently spicy aromatic character. Drinking window: 2022-2033.
Tiberio 2014 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale 93
Good full straw yellow. Forward, ripe nose is strongly marked but not dominated by a flinty presence, with peach, banana and papaya aromas in the background. Then similar flavours, complicated by notes of candied lemon and ginger, plus a sprinkling of white pepper for good measure, and repeating gunflint echoes lingering long on the precise back end. This expands very neatly and nicely to coat the palate. While the 2014 Fonte Canale was a very exuberant wine brimming with rather atypical tropical fruit notes, in its youth, it has tamed that side of its personality with time. I remember Cristiana telling me years ago, at the time we tasted this from the tanks before its release, that because of the cold wet year she had thought it wise to increase batonnage in order to increase texture and size, but that the wine then developed overtly tropical fruit flavours she really neither expected nor liked. Over the years, the wine has maintained a penetratingly tropical nuance but this is much more reined in than it used to be. Not my favourite Fonte Canale ever, but still an exceptionally good wine that is drinking splendidly right now. Drinking window: 2022-2025.
Tiberio 2013 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale 92
Vivid straw yellow colour. Rather delicate aromas of yellow apple, Kaiser pear, lime, tangerine, white flowers, and white pepper on the slightly subdued nose. Then bright and juicy, but less explosively fresh than is common for this wine, with soft, nuanced flavours of orchard fruit and sweet herbs. Seems a bit less powerful and piercing than any other Fonte Canale made, and even the trademark flintiness is more reticent. Finishes long with intriguing minerality and a suave citric aftertaste, but, on this day at least, with less penetrating concentration than is usual for Fonte Canale. Drinking window: 2022-2025.
Tiberio 2012 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale 95
Bright yellow green with golden tinges. Musky aromas of yellow apple, white peach, menthol, gunflint and grilled hazelnut (this last one a benchmark, Fiano-like descriptor of aged authentic Trebbiano Abruzzese wines). Then very elegant in the mouth, with serious density and precision to the nutty flavours of grapefruit, apple and crushed stone. The finish is multilayered and long, boasting a discreet translucent quality that is captivating. The 2012 Fonte Canale has always been one of the best ever made: I had found some bottle variation in the past due to some cork-related issues of the time (they have since changed cork supplier) but I have to say the alst three bottles I have had of the 2012 Fonte Canale over the last six months or so have shown no problems. Drinking window: 2022-2028.
Tiberio 2011 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale 93
Good full straw yellow. Very pure aromas of green apple, oyster shell and white flowers are complemented by a strong note of grilled hazelnuts and gunflint. Juicy, classically dry and penetrating, with outstanding inner-mouth perfume and truly noteworthy salinity that supplies freshness and extends the orchard fruit, mineral and floral flavours on the toasty finish. Closes very long and still rather tight, but with seamless terrific lift and vibrancy. Drinking window: 2022-2025.