Timorasso #2

Posted by Keith Wallace

Timorasso is a white grape found in the southwest corner of the Piedmont region of Italy, particularly the Colli Tortonesi Appalachian, which borders Liguria to the south and Emili-Romagna and Lombardy to the west. The white wine produced by the Timorasso grape is sold as DOC Colli Tortonesi Timorasso, but there are plans to introduce the denomination Tortona Timorasso. Alternatively, many current wine producers have been using the name Derthona.

History of Timorasso

As of early 123 BC, the Romans occupied Tortona, establishing a city called Derthona, an important Roman military station. Derthona was destroyed several times during the Middle Ages until it was incorporated into the Duchy of Milan and the House of Savory.

Historically, grape growing in this area of the Piedmont region was widespread and heavily sponsored by several noble families, who funded the industry and promoted indigenous varieties. In particular, the communes and valleys surrounding Tortona were known for producing white wines.

Before the mid-1800s, Timorasso was among the most planted local white varieties in the region. During this time, Timorasso was the principal variety used in the production of Torbolino, a yeasty sweet wine typically bottled mid-fermentation. Consequently, Torbolino needed to be more transparent and known for its poor taste and quality.

Between the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, the Piedmont region was subject to two World Wars, two subsequent mass emigrations, and phylloxera, which collectively devastated wine production in the area.

Immediately following this difficult period, grape growers in this Piedmont region began replanting their vineyards with reliable, vigorous, and profitable varieties instead of unreliable varieties that were difficult to grow. Because Timorasso was challenging to grow, easily attacked by disease, and ripened unevenly, it fell into this latter category of disfavored varieties. As a result, it was ripped out of vineyards by most growers. In comparison, the white grape, Cortese, which was easier to grow, produced higher yields and was used in making the widely-popular Gavi, was planted throughout the region instead of Timorasso. By 1987, Timorasso was nearly extinct, as only 0.5 hectares existed for cultivation. What little Timorasso still existed at the time was mainly used for blending grapes or in the production of table wine.

The Resurrection of Timorasso

In 1978, upon graduating from Alba School of Enology, Walter Massa took over his family’s farm in the hilltop village of Monleale in southeastern Piedmont. At the time, the family business, Vigneti Massa, concentrated on growing peaches and Barbera grapes for bulk sale. However, it was Massa’s view that Barbera should be something other than the area’s flagship wine. While the commercial market demand directed the heavy growth of red varieties, Massa believed that the area’s altitude, microclimate, and soil were more suited for growing white grapes.

At first, Massa began growing Cortese for use in Gavi, but after several years, Massa started looking for an alternative. While his peers encouraged Massa to plant Chardonnay or Arneis, Massa researched the history of white grapes grown in the area and became interested in Timorasso.

Massa discovered approximately 400 Timorasso plants scattered throughout his family’s winery. In 1987, Massa sourced grapes from these 400 plants and produced 500 bottles of his first vintage of 100% Timorasso. 

Following his early success in producing 100% Timorasso, Massa encouraged other local growers to begin growing Timorasso, which eventually led to the establishment of the Colli Tortonesi DOC and the production and sale of Timorasso wine as DOC Colli Tortonesi Timorasso. However, Massa was unwilling to comply with the rules and regulations of the DOC. Instead, Massa obtained a trademark and called his Timorasso “Derthona” in honor of the ancient city of the same name. Massa has since licensed the name Derthona to other producers who also sell their Timorasso wine under the name of Derthona.

Today, Massa has 10 hectares of Timorasso planted across nine vineyards. The Colli Tortonesi appalachian is also growing, and Timorasso plantings have grown to 430 acres. Presently, more than 50 wineries produce 800,000 bottles of Timorasso wine annually. Many of these producers are small family wineries and a 200-member cooperative of smaller local growers and growers from the neighboring areas, such as Vietti and Fontanafredda/Borgogno.

Timorasso In the Vineyard

Timorasso has small berries, is low yielding, and has thin skin. However, the grape has a high acidity and plenty of polyphenols and aromatic components. The physiological variations between young and established Timorasso wines are dramatic. Young vines are incredibly vigorous, while the region of established vines significantly decreases when reaching two decades.

Ripeness is critical to Timorasso. Many growers utilize tressage techniques that allow the apical shoot to grow without trimming, which has been shown to reduce lateral growth and enhance ripening. Furthermore, limiting foliage helps reduce disease pressure and maintain sugar levels, promoting healthier ferments. This results in primarily dry wines.

Timorasso prefers poor, marginal, clayey-calcareous soils with limited water, restricting vigor and aides ripeness. Consequently, well-exposed south and southwest-facing and mid-slope vineyards with ample sunlight are preferred. In Colli Tortonesi, vineyard altitude varies significantly. As a result, harvest dates can differ by as much as 20 days between areas of different altitudes.

Timorasso Wine Production

The vinification of Massa’s first vintage of Timorasso in 1987 proceeded as expected, with bottling occurring in April. However, fermentation took longer the following year, and by April, the wine was still sweet and ready for bottling in September. Massa realized that he had to go slow with fermentation, and he began holding the wine back a year, which appears to be counter-intuitive since consumers expect white wines to be young and fresh. Nonetheless, Massa learned that Timorasso improves with time in the cellar and bottle and that the wines reach maturity three to four years after harvest. 

Massa currently produces three single-vineyard bottlings of Timorasso – Costa Clel Vento, Sterpi, and Montecitorio, while Derthona remains a blend from Massa’s nine different Timorasso vineyards. Massa’s wines undergo a 48-60 hour pre-fermentation maceration (with stems) in concrete during production. Subsequently, the wines undergo temperature-controlled fermentation in steel using wild yeasts. Because Massa believes in lengthy bottle aging, Derthona is released in the cellar after a minimum of 18 months. Massa’s single vineyard bottles are released after a minimum of two years of aging.

When Timorasso undergoes cool fermentation in stainless steel, the young wine is vibrant and fruit-driven. Barrel maturation and/or skin contact enhances the wine’s texture and complexity. In Colli Tortonesi, some producers occasionally blend Timorasso with Moscato Bianco and Vermentino to create a fragrant, fresh white wine. Timorasso does not age well in oak, but it is age-worthy where the wine could hold up after more than ten years in the cellar.

In the Glass

Timorasso wines boast aromatic floral scents, apricot and apple flavors, and bright acidity, structure, and depth when young. Timorasso appears to be best when the alcohol level is 13% — 14%. As Timorasso wines age, they gain mineral complexity and may develop petroleum characteristics similar to Rieslings or the dry honey and almond elements found in Chenin Blanc. Timorasso also has a mouth-filling character that gives the impression of skin-contact maceration or barrel aging. However, the body comes from the grape itself.

Timorasso pairs well with anything from seafood to spicey cuisines, like Thai or Indian curries. One classic combination is with the local Montebore cheese, a strong-flavored cheese made from cow and sheep milk.

Taste Test

The wine I tasted was a 2020 DOC Colli Tortonesi produced by Vitti and branded as Derthona. 

Upon tasting, the wine has a golden straw color. On the nose, the wine presents notes of floral, minerality, stone fruits, and petro. The wine is medium body. In the mouth, you are hit with medium to high acid, which increases to a high acid on the finish. Initially, the wine presents green apples and iron flavors but progresses to a tangerine-orange citric finish.

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