Posted by Keith Wallace

If you Google “Italian grapes that were almost extinct,” the volume of results is overwhelming. While other indigenous grapes have flourished in Italy for centuries, all of these near-forgotten grapes make me wonder what could have been. Had one influential person in Langhe decided they liked Freisa better Nebbiolo a few hundred years ago, would Barolo be Barolo as we know it today?

Take that one choice and multiply it by hundreds of other native grapes; the Italian wine picture could be very different today. Entire areas presently known for certain varietals might be famous for something else, not famous at all, or not even exist. Would we be sipping Pecorino more than Verdicchio along the Adriatic? Would Sagrantino from Umbria be more revered than Chianti in Tuscany? Would Gaglioppo have eventually risen from rusticity and obscurity to make fine wines that were exported en masse all over the world?

I came across the varietal Timorasso in an Italian-themed issue of Wine Spectator from 2022. It was listed as number ninety out of one hundred and one thing the magazine loves about Italy. I almost glazed right over the small blurb on a lower corner of page 71 until the words “reminiscent of Alsace Riesling” caught my eye. It had me at that comparison. As one known to love a good Riesling, I wanted to learn more.

Timorasso’s story arc starts with popularity, followed by falling out of fashion, much like other grapes close to extinction and Ben Affleck.

Timorasso is native to the Colli Tortonesi DOC in Piedmont, which includes red and white wines made in the hills around Tortona. The most popular grape in the region is Barbera. The DOC was created in 1973, just before its neighbor, Gavi, which is made from Timorasso’s arch nemesis grape, Cortese.

Timorasso has grown in Piedmont since medieval times. In the nineteenth century, it rivaled Cortese as the most popular kid in school. It was the Zack Morris of white grapes in Piedmont.

Then starting in the late 19th century through the mid-twentieth century, Italy hit a few “speed bumps,” some of which were a vast emigration out of Piedmont, a couple of world wars, fascism, and a phylloxera epidemic that decimated vineyards. During and after these tough times, varietals that were difficult or inconsistent in production, like Timorasso, were replaced by more vigorous alternatives and thus more profitable. Timorasso faded away but didn’t disappear completely.

Enter Walter Massa, Timorasso’s savior.

As many Italian winemakers were opting to grow international varietals and, in some cases, shunning the classification system, Mr. Massa had a passion for indigenous varietals.

In 1987, after some research and experimentation, he produced his first Timorasso from less than 500 vines on about 1.2 acres. These were the only 500 vines left of the varietal at the time. He continued to produce Timorasso and led a renaissance effort to revive the varietal in the region.

Today, there are more than 430 acres, and over 800,000 bottles are produced annually. The wines are sold as DOC Colli Tortonesi Timorasso, but the denomination Tortona Timorasso is in the works. Some producers use the name Derthona, the old name for the town of Tortona, to further distinguish their wine.

Circumstances caused the near extinction of Timorasso. One man’s belief and choice brought it back from the brink.
I got my hands on some Timorasso at a store in the next town over – La Spinetta 2021, Timorasso, Colli Tortonesi DOC. I didn’t need to special order it. It was in stock, which surprised me, but it indicates its growing popularity, even if it was only one bottle.

The nose of this wine was chock full of citrus, grapefruit specifically, along with some floral and flinty/rocky minerality. One sip was a burst of tart yellow grapefruit on the rocks – on literal rocks. The acidity was stark; I almost puckered from the tartness, and I loved it. I agreed on the comparison to an Alsace Riesling, minus the petrol, which was missing from the Timorasso. But I didn’t miss it. It had all the aromas and acidity of something a little lighter in body than it was. It had some weight to it, which was surprising and delightful.

Timorasso seems to be enjoying the next stage of its story arc: a restored rise to glory. It could be very well on the cusp of being the next big thing in a wine. Hopefully, it doesn’t eventually fall prey to over-production and suffer the same fate as grapes like Pinot Grigio.

It’s fun to see “what could have been” become “what could be.” And it makes you wonder what other neglected varietals could thrive if they found their very own believer, like Walter Massa and Timorasso.

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