It’s amazing to think that my journey to understand wine is now verging on fifteen years long. Yet what’s even more amazing is that through it all, I started with Italy and continue to be both enamored by the wine produced there but also still learning something new about it on a daily basis. You must understand that Italian wine is vast, a person could make it their life’s work to fully understand it, and I have a feeling that person might be me one day.
I knew from the very beginning that I was hooked. What started with Barolo and Barbaresco led to Alto Piemonte and Valtellina. What started with Chianti Classico and Brunello segued deeper into the Sangiovese belt with Le Marche and Umbria. This happened throughout the years, as new regions and their diverse selection of native varieties and unique regional expressions continued to pull me in deeper.
However, there is one region that I always saw great potential in, but with the exception of only one or two small producers, never seemed to reach the heights which I thought possible, and that’s Abruzzo. This region has its ever-so-likable and downright slurpable Montepulciano grape. Not to mention, the Somm favorite–the crisp, white Pecorino–simply never seemed to be able to produce wines of serious importance. Of course, there was the Montepulciano of Emidio Pepe and Trebbiano Abruzzese of Valentini, but these producers were the exception, not the rule.
The rule, unfortunately, was a push to create more concentrated wines. Wines aged in oak that could compete on an international level. One thing that this region excelled at was its large production of affordable (and quite likable) Montepulciano, but each time a producer attempted to put something in the market that was supposed to be more important, ageable, or serious–the contents within the bottle would simple fail to justify the price.
This has been the status quo since I started my journey with Italian wine.
However, something is suddenly very different about Abruzzo; there’s a renewed sense of purpose these days, which has been instigated by a small amount of forward-thinking winemakers, who believe that the region they call home is capable of so much more than it has produced in the past. Not quantity, mind you–but quality, and a distinction or quantifying of the region’s native varieties, which is sure to propel its wines to the world’s stage.
One of the most talked-about producers in Italy today isn’t from Piedmont, Tuscany, or Sicily–she’s from Abruzzo, and her name is Cristiana Tiberio.
In what seemed like an overnight coup–completely changing the way many people thought of Montepulciano, Pecorino and Trebbiano Abruzzese–was instead a well-played and steady evolution that started with Cristiana’s father in the late nineties. It was at this time that Riccardo Tiberio found himself moving his entire family from the coastal city of Pescara to the small town of Cugnoli because of a vineyard he had found of old, “True” Trebbiano Abruzzese. It’s important to understand that there’s a reason why Trebbiano isn’t looked upon as a wine of great importance around the world, and that’s because very few producers are actually growing real Trebbiano vines. However, we can’t necessarily blame them; the reality is that even the vine nurseries of the region were unintentionally supplying a mix of inferior clones and less important varieties over decades. Yet when we taste the great Trebbiano of Valentini, we are tasting true Trebbiano Abruzzese–no wonder we love it so much. And it was with this same love of the grape and it’s possibilities that Riccardo changed his family’s lives forever.
What followed was a severe massel selection and planting of new vineyards, which are today producing fruit for the entire portfolio. A study of the soils and vine training techniques prompted the Tiberio family to plant Pecorino, a mountainous variety, in a mix of limestone with a marly-gravel subsoil at 1250 feet above sea level. At only 16 years old, the Tiberio family has the oldest planted Pecorino vines in the region, planted in a location that is ideal for producing superior fruit.
A selection of their Montepulciano grapes are grown using the canopy system, or Pergola, which was thought for many years to be an outdated methodology, yet Ricardo’s daughter Cristiana swears by it. In these limestone soils, with the sun beating down on the overhead leaves, the grapes remain protected and ripening at a steady pace. It’s no wonder that I often think more of the fragile Pinot Noir than Montepulciano when I drink these wines.
Together with her brother Antonio, Christiana took the reins of the winery in 2008 and began on her mission to show the world both what her father had uncovered in these hills and also what the native varieties of her region could accomplish.
Today it is the Fonte Canale Trebbiano Abruzzese that is her pride and joy. It’s a true Trebbiano Abruzzese, made from the same vineyard that inspired her father almost twenty years ago. Produced from 60 year old vines, grown using traditional pergola vine training, which allows her Trebbiano to enjoy a long, shady growing season. Christiana describes this wine as liquid minerals, and from the moment you taste it, her description becomes clear. The textural depth and layered minerality found here is unimaginable, and it must be tasted to be believed. It is, without a doubt, one of Italy’s most important white wines today, and it should age beautifully. For those who have the means, put this next to a Valentini Trebbiano to taste, and you’ll see what I mean.
Let’s not forget her Montepulciano, a wine that breaks the price-to-quality ratio with its haunting depths and pinot-like textures at a price that is unbelievable. Try decanting one for an hour and reap the benefits. And the Pecorino, also at an amazing price point, is considered the best example of its kind in Italy today. Did I mention Cerasuolo–maybe I’ll keep that one all for me. 🙂
The fact is that I could go on and on about the wines, but what’s most important here are the people. Christiana and her brother Antonio are committed to not only showing the world what they can produce, but also to help the entire region to grow with them through awareness. Their message is the importance of varietal parentage, of terroir, and the purity of superior Abruzzese fruit found in all stainless steel vinification.
Abruzzo is now firmly back on the map, and it owes much of that to Tiberio.
On to the tasting notes:
2015 Tiberio Pecorino Colline Pescaresi IGT – The nose was incredibly pretty, showing lifted citrus, raw almond, young peach, mango skins, and vibrant minerals. On the palate, I found silky mid-weight textures contrasted by zesty, cleansing acidity, tart citrus, young fig, green apple and minerals. It finished pure, with a buzz of green apple acidity, wild herbs and inner floral tones. It was stunning and pure, with a cleansing, drink-me-now, personality. (92 points)
2016 Tiberio Montepulciano Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo – The ’16 Tiberio Cerasuolo provided unexpected depth and minerality on the nose, showing strawberry, raspberry, wild flowers, chalk dust and crushed stone. On the palate, I found lifted textures, yet with contrasting cherry fruit that saturated the senses and provided grip, while brisk acidity with hints of blood orange maintained an amazingly fresh experience. It finished with a twang of tart red berry and hints of herbs, yet it was remarkably fresh. Wow! (92 points)
2014 Tiberio Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – The nose showed rich cherry and forest, woodland notes, with a hint of undergrowth, subtle spice and minerals. On the palate, I found silky, mid-weight textures with saturating, fleshy black cherry, firmed up by a coating of minerals and fine tannin. It finished with dried cherry, licorice and inner dried floral tones. Gorgeous purity. (92 points)
2013 Tiberio Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale – It took over an hour for the ’13 Fonte Canale to really show it’s true potential, yet once it did, there was no doubt about this wines potential. On the nose, I found a bouquet of dried flowers, pear and young peach, along with hints of lime and penetrating crushed stone minerality. Unexpectedly weighty textures were contrasted by masses of tart lemon-lime citrus, green apple, minerals and brisk acidity, which made the mouth water throughout the finish, as cheek-puckering, saturating citrus-infused stone fruits lingered on. (93 points)
2015 Tiberio Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale – The ’15 Fonte Canale is, all at once, both stimulating and soothing to the senses. Depths of mineral-infused stone fruits and green apple acidity dominated the palate, creating unbelievable tension and a savory finish that went on and on. All of this while maintaining an amazingly textural experience. Sometimes a wine grows on you, but in this case, it was love at first sight. (95 points)
Article, Tasting Notes and Bottle Shots: Eric Guido
Vineyard and Grape Photos courtesy of Tiberio
Visit the Tiberio Website
The Tiberio selection at Morrell Wine
Thinking back to when I was first getting into Washington State wine, the name Leonetti was already firmly fixed as an icon of the region. This was over ten years ago, and somehow I spent most of that decade getting more and more into the region, without ever having a chance to taste through a range of Leonetti. Then one day I had my chance, with a bottle of 2011 Sangiovese, a wine that Leonetti is especially known for. However, as luck would have it, I wasn’t impressed. The 2011 showed little in the way of Sangiovese character, and it sported a sweet spice and mineral note that brought Flintstones Vitamins to mind–I didn’t even write a tasting note.
But fear not!
I was determined to understand how this name had become a pillar of the region, and I’ve been around long enough to know that you should never judge a producer on one wine, from one vintage. Luckily for me, that opportunity was right around the corner, only two months after my ill-fated experience, I was offered a chance to taste with Chris Figgins himself, through a range of wines that spanned three vintages.
Chris Figgins, the son of the winery’s founder Gary Figgins, is a man that has his eye on the future of both Leonetti and the ever-evolving world of domestic wine. Within only moments of talking with Chris, the first thing that stood out to me was his love for Italian varietals and maintaining their character. You can imagine that after my experience with the 2011 Sangiovese, I wouldn’t have expected this, and I of course asked him about it.
Chris went on to explain how the 2011 was an outlier from the normal style of their Sangiovese, due to a mix of frost-damaged vines from the previous year, and a long, cool growing season with one of the latest harvest dates on record. The wine was made from ripe, but also concentrated fruit. He then went on to assure me that the Sangiovese is aged in 100% neutral wood botti. You can imagine my surprise, but also my excitement, that this one wine may have been a misleading experience for me. He also had my interests peaked, as he talked about an Aglianico that he has thought about producing.
With that out of the way, we moved on to vintages, Leonetti, and Chris’ other projects. If you haven’t already heard, Washington State has had a string of great vintages starting with the classic 2012s and getting progressively warmer in overall temperature with each year. Keep in mind that this is a generally warm region, which is why it’s important to look to growers who aren’t in the business of making big blousy wines.
Leonetti, with its history going back to being Walla Walla’s first commercial winery in 1977, continues to strive for a classic, balanced style. With a constant eye on the future, and a no-compromise approach in the vineyards and cellar, the family farms five very distinct terroir from within their estate holdings—each contributes unique characteristics to the finished wines, and everything is done in-house. The pride that this family has for their products, their land and the well-being of the industry is like a breath of fresh air.
That said, Chris has also started to look outside of the family’s holding that produces his Figgins label, which includes a Cabernet-based red and Riesling from Washington, as well as projects that are coming together in the Willamette Valley–that’s right, Oregon.
That’s when we got to tasting.
With my detailed notes below, I’ll stick to broad impressions. First I’ll say that I enjoyed the Figgins wines, especially the Riesling for its sheer drinkability. However, they are a departure from the Leonetti style. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but don’t approach these wines as if they are an extension to Leonetti. The Figgins red was a solid effort that will make a lot of people happy. For me though, the real excitement was found in the Leonetti lineup, with the 2015 Merlot and 2014 Cabernet stealing the show. It’s not often in this business that you taste a wine and immediately want to put some in your own cellar, but that is indeed what happened here.
Oh, and I did have a chance to taste the Sangiovese again, this time the 2014, and while it didn’t blow my mind, I can assure you that it’s no slouch.
I totally get it, and I fully understand now why Leonetti is looked upon with so much respect in the region. These are gorgeous, world-class wines.
On to the tasting notes:
Leonetti Sangiovese Walla Walla 2014 – Here I found an intense mix of deep, spicy red fruits, with notes of new leather, chalk dust minerality and hints of cocoa. On the palate, firm, angular textures gained energy through zesty acidity with tart red fruits and spicy tannic crunch. It finished long and firm with palate-saturating deep red fruits. I’m not sure I’d call this Sangiovese in a blind tasting, but it’s undeniably an enjoyable wine that’s worth seeking out. (92 points)
Leonetti Merlot Walla Walla 2015 – I feel like I had a total ah-ha moment with the 2015 Leonetti Merlot, with a bouquet of sweet red and blue fruits, rich brown spices, sweet herbs and chalk dust minerality. On the palate, I found silky textures with herb-infused red berry fruits, exotic spice and inner violet floral tones. It seemed to saturate all of the senses with its sweet herb and fruit tones before heading into a long and concentrated finish where young tannin added a tart and grippy quality. What a beautiful wine. (95 points)
Leonetti Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla 2014 – The nose was intense and utterly compelling, showing dark, rich red and black fruits with enticing notes of grilled herbs and masses of contrasting mineral tones. On the palate, I found soft, silky textures with sappy red fruits and a savory mix of herbs and spice. It was creamy yet structured with perfectly balancing acidity that resulting in a long and satisfying finish. There’s so much potential under the hood here, and I can’t wait to see what five or more years in the cellar might evoke. (96 points)
Leonetti Reserve Walla Walla 2013 – The nose was rich with crushed berry, sweet florals, hints of cola and undergrowth. On the palate, I found a refined and lighted expression, much more so than I would have expected with bright red fruits and hints of woodland flora. It finished long and spicy with hints of herbs. (92 points)
Figgins Estate Red 2013 – The nose showed intense ripe red fruits with dusty sweet spices, yet it was unexpectedly fresh and gained richness with air. On the palate, I found smooth, creamy textures offset by mouthwatering brisk acidity, as red berry fruits turned savory and spicier over time. The finish was long and dark, yet the ‘13 Figgins remained spry and light on its feet throughout. (93 points)
Figgins Riesling Estate 2016 – What a seductive bouquet, with ripe peach and sweet herbs offset by a spritz of lime and minerals. With time in the glass, it gained richness and spice. On the palate, I found soft yet energetic textures with ripe stone fruits and citrus-driven acidity. The finish was fresh and mouthwatering with hints of tropical fruits and tart citrus. Yum! (90 points)
Article and Tasting Notes: Eric Guido
Photos by Eric Guido, Garret Dostal, and courtesy of Leonetti Cellars
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