One of the many reasons I love specializing in Italian wine is that I never get bored. With more native grapes used to make wine than any other country in the world, and long traditions of growing only select varieties in certain areas, the combination of unique grapes and specific growing conditions often leads to fascinating wines that can’t be recreated anywhere else in Italy or the rest of the world.
Timorasso, one the most exciting wines coming out of Italy right now, is exactly that combination of native variety and specific growing area.
Made with the grape of the same name, Timorasso boasts more depth, body and complexity than many Italian whites. It’s definitely not your classic light-bodied white to sip as an aperitivo or to knock back with pizza.
Hailing from Piedmont—home to Italy’s famed reds Barolo and Barbaresco— Timorasso is grown in an obscure corner of what is Italy’s most celebrated wine region. And Timorasso—nearly extinct until two decades ago—owes its modern-day existence and cult status to one man: Walter Massa.
After graduating from Alba’s enological school in 1976, Massa took over his family’s farm in the hilltop village of Monleale in southeastern Piedmont, in the rolling hills near Alessandria known as the Colli Tortonesi. Up until then Vigneti Massa, like most local farms, grew and sold red grapes Barbera and Croatina and, later, white Cortese, but Barbera was the area’s focus. Shortly after joining the firm and bottling his first wines, Massa became convinced that Barbera shouldn’t be the area’s flagship wine.
“Our altitude, microclimate and soil are more suited to whites grapes, but market demand for reds meant that growers here replanted with red varieties for commercial reasons only,” says Massa.
But not just any white grape would work. At the time, the only white production in the area was Cortese, a high-yielding white variety made famous by the Gavi region. Cortese can also generate bland wines. The grape’s mediocre local performance didn’t convince Massa, who says, “Monleale doesn’t love Cortese.” One grape that did fascinate Massa, however, was a thick-skinned, native white variety known as Timorasso.
“We always had a small amount of Timorasso in our vineyards and they were great table grapes. We also used to add it to Cortese to make a white wine that we sold in demijohns to wine merchants from other parts of Piedmont and Oltrepò Pavese,” says Massa. In 1987, he decided to ferment his Timorasso alone, and made a little over 500 bottles. He knew right away he was on to something. Encouraged, he continued to experiment with the grape from about 400 plants scattered throughout his holdings, and began asking other growers—who bluntly told him he was crazy— for their Timorasso. In 1989 he performed a massal selection of the best grapes, and in 1990 planted his first vineyard dedicated entirely to Timorasso.
From 1987 to 1997, Massa continued to experiment and bottle Timorasso but the real breakthrough came in 1997, when he bottled his Costa del Vento vineyard, the one he planted in 1990. Since then he has planted more vineyards and now has nine vineyards totaling 10 hectares of Timorasso.
Today Massa produces three single-vineyard bottlings—Costa del Vento, Sterpi and Montecitorio—while his Derthona is a blend of Timorasso from all his vineyards. Wines undergo a 48–60 hour pre-fermentation maceration—with the stems—in concrete before temperature controlled fermentation in steel using only wild yeasts. Walter also believes in lengthy bottle aging, releasing Derthona after a minimum of 18 months in the cellar, and the single vineyard bottlings after a minimum of two years aging. “But the wines reach maturity three to four years after the harvest,” according to Massa.
When young, Vigneti Massa’s full-bodied Timorasso wines boast alluring floral scents, creamy apricot and apple flavors and bright acidity. As they age, they gain in mineral complexity and boast dried fruit, almond and honeyed notes seamlessly balanced with fresh acidity. I’ve tasted numerous vintages over the years, and the wines evolve beautifully for at least fifteen years. As the vines get older, these superb whites may increase their aging potential.
Other local producers have taken note of Walter Massa’s success and today there are about twenty firms growing and producing Timorasso.