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Tiberio Pecorino Colline Pescaresi 2005-2018
BY IAN D'AGATA | JANUARY 15, 2020
The twists and turns that characterize the human condition have an uncanny way of making great things happen from unexpected circumstances. So call it luck or destiny, but one of Italy’s best-buy wines was born from a casual stroll in the vineyards, now 20 years ago. That vineyard walk led Abruzzo’s Tiberio winery, now run by second-generation Tiberio siblings Antonio (the viticulturist) and Cristiana (the winemaker), to begin production of a multi-award-winning Pecorino wine. In fact, founder Riccardo Tiberio (Antonio and Cristiana’s father) had bought the property in 1999 because of the extremely old vines surrounding the house that he recognized as authentic Trebbiano Abruzzese. Despite its name Trebbiano Abruzzese (a very high-quality native variety) is not common in Abruzzo anymore, so being able to buy old vines of it is a major coup. After all, it’s the authentic Trebbiano Abruzzese that is one of the secrets behind Valentini’s standout Trebbiano d’Abruzzo (Trebbiano Abruzzese is the variety; Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is the wine), easily one of Italy’s best white wines. Being no fool, Tiberio pounced on the opportunity to buy; but in so doing, he ended up getting an extra, one that he admits he hadn’t planned for, or even seen coming.
Tiberio's beautiful and intensely green Pecorino vineyard
It was Antonio and Cristiana Tiberio
who, while strolling beneath the canopies one summer day back in 1999, realized
that a bunch of vines and grapes looked completely different from the rest. The
two admit they really didn’t know what grape or grapes stood before them; they just
thought it was some really funny-looking Trebbiano-variety (beginning with the
near-circular leaf, which is nothing like the leaves of most Trebbiano
varieties). Only after sending samples to a local nursery did they learn that
they also owned vines of Pecorino, something nobody had mentioned at the time
of the estate sale. The Tiberio siblings aren’t sure who first decided to plant
Pecorino among the Trebbiano Abruzzese vines on the estate, but it was most
likely Silvio Tinozzi, who owned the property back in the first part of the 20th
century (he was a descendant of the Tinozzi family that owned much of the land
around Cugnoli, the town where the Tiberio estate is located).
In Italy, it was once common for farmers to hedge their bets by co-planting different varieties in the same vineyard plot. As different cultivars ripen at different times and are more or less susceptible to different diseases, locals always believed, not unreasonably, that planting more than one grape variety in the same vineyard was a good idea. No matter, Antonio and Cristiana Tiberio were hardly displeased with their discovery, for even then they were aware of the excellent wines made with the Pecorino variety by the two men who had rediscovered it only a few years before, Guido Cocci Grifoni in the Marche (the first person ever to bottle a monovariety Pecorino wine) and Luigi Cataldi Madonna in Abruzzo (the first person ever to bottle a monovariety Pecorino wine that sported the cultivar’s name on the label). As luck would have it, the Tiberio siblings were very good friends with Cataldi Madonna, whose first Pecorino wine dates back to the 1996 vintage and who undoubtedly did more for Pecorino’s surge to fame in Abruzzo than anyone else. Cristiana Tiberio credits Cataldi Madonna for having been her mentor in those early years (and to Cataldi Madonna’s credit, other Abruzzo wine producers have told me exactly the same thing over the years). “Very little was known about Pecorino back then, either the grape or the wines. Written information was practically nonexistent, and so the only way I could learn was by hanging out at Cataldi Madonna’s estate, observing and listening to him.” Over time, Tiberio developed her own winemaking style with the Pecorino variety. Today, her wine, Cataldi Madonna’s old-vines Frontone bottling and Cocci Grifoni’s Colle Vecchio bottling are, by a huge margin, the three best Pecorino wines made in Italy.
Pecorino hiding in the cool shady canopy provided by its many round leaves
Pecorino - The Grape
Pecorino is a mountain variety that requires long, cool growing seasons to ripen fully and to give truly complex wines. Unfortunately, the popularity and very strong sales of its wines have been such that people have taken to planting it anywhere, even in much-too-warm flatland and seaside areas. Pecorino grapes are able to pack in sugar quickly, and in such warm habitats the harvest needs to take place far too early in the season (often by the middle to the end of the summer) in order to avoid making jammy wines sporting 15% alcohol or more. Thick-skinned and small-berried, Pecorino is at once rustic and resistant (an example of a grape well adapted to its cold mountain environment), but those small berries and the sterile basal buds do not allow large wine volumes to be made, which is the main reason the variety had been abandoned before Cocci Grifoni rediscovered it. (New clones are much more fertile and more productive than older biotypes.) Pecorino prefers clay-rich, hillside soils that are not especially rich in lime, and rootstocks that don’t push vigor are best.
Quarmari,Tiberio's majestic Abruzzo shepherd dog, stands guard at the estate entry
Pecorino – The Wine
Today, the Tiberio Pecorino is a single-vineyard wine. The vineyard was planted in 2000 and 2001 with massal selections of old Pecorino vines that Antonio and Cristiana Tiberio sourced from one vineyard after scouring all of their Trebbiano Abruzzese vineyards in 1999. Ultimately, the siblings found that the Pecorino had been planted in only one plot of what are now 60-year-old Trebbiano Abruzzese vines located right behind the estate’s main house (in other words, not among the 80- to 90-year-old vines used to make the estate’s top wine, the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Fonte Canale). The Pecorino vineyard, now 3.8 hectares large, was originally planted with a single biotype of Pecorino (in other words, the plants all looked more or less the same and behaved similarly), but after almost 20 years, thanks to ongoing climate change and differences in the geology and soil structure within the vineyard, mutations have taken place among the grapevines and there are now six recognizably different Pecorino biotypes living in the vineyard (though three types are the most common). Cristiana Tiberio told me that over the last few years they have been performing separate microvinifications of each Pecorino biotype, so as to learn what each can give wine-wise; and while for the moment a blend of the biotypes appears to give the best possible result, Tiberio believes that one biotype in particular seems to give a superior wine to the other five. Whether in the future the family will move to bottle a second Pecorino wine with just that one biotype requires more study and further vintages.
While Cataldi Madonna likes to use dry ice to save the aromatic precursors of the Pecorino variety (and therefore makes extremely thiol-rich wines that have much in common with those made with the Sauvignon Blanc grape), Tiberio does not. The Pecorino grapes are picked at sunrise in the cool morning air (before temperatures rise but after the nighttime humidity has resolved), then destemmed; no pressing occurs and the juice run-off is collected by gravity. Vinification takes place in temperature-controlled steel tanks without any bâtonnage or pump-overs (the Pecorino variety is so rich in polyphenols and glycerol that Tiberio finds those techniques result in too fat and heavy a wine). Only native yeasts from the Pecorino vineyard have been used since the 2013 vintage. The wine goes through full malolactic fermentation, as Pecorino is a high-acid variety and so are its wines (these usually clock in at 7 g/L total acidity with pH values as low as 2.7–2.9, depending on the vintage). Stainless steel tanks are also the aging vessel of choice; after six to eight months in the tanks and another three to four months in bottle, the wine goes on sale.
Over the last two years I have tasted through three different verticals of this wine. Each time, the wines presented similar characteristics with recognizable vintage-related differences in all three tastings. For the most part, a good Pecorino wine will always evoke white stone and fresh citrus fruit (especially lime), lemon curd, lemongrass, sage and rosemary. Wines that suggest very ripe tropical fruit, vanilla and spices should be considered atypical; they are most often the product of industrial yeasts or planting in less-than-ideal habitats. Pecorino is always a texturally rich wine and never too shy in alcohol, as the variety accumulates sugar with ease. Tiberio’s wine ranges from 13.5 to 14% alcohol by volume, and though Pecorino can easily become heavy and blowsy in the hands of lesser winemakers, I find that Tiberio’s trademark style of very refined, high-acid but graceful wines is almost always recognizable in her Pecorino wines as well.
The wines in this report were tasted in my office in October 2019.
See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest
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