Timorasso #3

Posted by Keith Wallace

In the calcareous and clay soils of Colli Tortonesi, nestled in northwest Italy, Timorasso has slowly — but stunningly — reemerged. Once drank by da Vinci and tasted as a table grape of the Piedmont, Timorasso, like so many others, fell from prominence at the hands of the world wars, commercial trends, and its viticultural complexities. 

Timorasso is a finicky, low-yielding grape that is quickly proving to be a star of immense proportions. Full-bodied with good acidity, carrying notes similar to Chenin Blanc or Rieslings from Rheinhessen (D’Agata, 2014), Timorasso is turning heads.

But any good comeback starts with an origin story.

Timorasso finds its roots, literally and genetically, traced back into northwest Italy. Shown to have a parent-offspring relationship with Lambruschetto (Robinson, 2012), Timorasso was initially grown throughout southern Lombardy, Liguria, and Tortona (D’Agata, 2014). Early mentions appeared in texts of the late 1400s when then-wedding planner Leonardo da Vinci was known for gifting bottles of timuras (Timorasso) at lavish events (Word on the Grapevine, 2022). 

Never known as an easy-going grape, Timorasso was successful despite its faults. In The Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Ian D’Agata best summarizes Timorasso as “a pain to grow” (2014). With berries of different sizes, Timorasso is easily recognizable by its asynchronous maturation. Checking nearly every box of challenges, Timorasso is also prone to floral abortion; emerging berries are prone to falling off the vine in windy conditions or developing rot due to their yellow-green skin. Irregular, unreliable, low-yielding. But worth the work.

Despite its challenges, Timorasso and the other white wines of Tortona gained in popularity throughout the 1800s. Torbolino, a sweet, cloudy, yeasty blend, featured Timorasso as its main varietal (Word on the Grapevine, 2022). Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Timorasso had found its place as a table and blending grape, widely planted and well used.

The story of Timorasso’s near disappearance isn’t a glamorous one or a sudden one. The 20th century brought wars, commercial changes, and a shift from small commune life to industrial momentum in nearby cities and towns. Timorasso’s unreliable, high-maintenance nature lost out to the more vigorous and cooperative Cortese, and it quickly fell from production.

Enter Walter Massa. 

A native of southeastern Piedmont, Walter Massa is an unlikely hero of a 1980s comeback story. In a monthly newsletter, Matt Franco of MCF Rare Wine describes one of many visits with Walter Massa with an unusual balance of reverence for the quality, uniqueness, and “profundity” of Massa’s wines and the “genuine cartoon-ness” of his character. And it’s that balance that leads us to Timorasso’s reemergence.

Vigneti Massa, like most Piedmontese vineyards of the 1970s and 1980s, focused production on the premier, the popular grape of the area: Barbera. Walter Massa, then a recent graduate of Alba’s enological school, saw the situation differently. Noting the altitude of hilltop Monleale and the calcareous, clay, yellow-brown soil, Massa saw an environment perfect for white grape production (O’Keefe, 2016).

Leaning away from the blander, high-yielding Cortese, Massa began to fixate on the scattered Timorasso vines in the family vineyard — still used as table grapes. Throughout the early 1980s, Massa continued experimenting, ultimately landing on his first 500-bottle run of Timorasso in 1987 (Karlsson, 2021).

But the challenges of growing Timorasso hadn’t dissipated since the late 1800s, and Massa was forced to get creative. Between 1987 and 1997, he collected vine samples from other growers.

Despite the quality of Vigneti Massa’s 1997 single varietal Timorasso, it wasn’t an overnight transformation. Between 1997 and 2016, the momentum continued to grow. Vigneti Massa expanded its Timorasso plantings to over nine vineyards, and local producers in Colli Tortonesi began to take note. Those producers included the likes of Luigi Boveri and La Colombera, cementing Colli Tortonesi as the epicenter of the nearly-lost grape’s resurgence.

The result? Aromatic, age-worthy complexity. Timorasso tasting notes include mentions of intense minerality, good acidity, and expressions of stone and tropical fruit. Karlsson, O’Keefe, and D’Agata all note Timorasso’s parallels to Chenin Blanc and Riesling, citing its ability to age and the rich honey, almond, and petroleum flavors that can result (Karlsson, 2021).

Hometown hero.

The DOC Colli Tortonesi of today is a little different. Karlsson’s 2021 Forbes article paints a picture of a hillside appellation with over 51 wineries now producing Timorasso over 430 acres. But Massa’s iterative spirit persists. While DOC regulations mandate 85% Timorasso for varietal wines, some producers look toward Timorasso blends with the balance composed of Moscato Bianco and Favorita (Wine Searcher, 2021). And yet others, like Casina Gentile di Daniele Oddone, have begun experimenting with skin contact. Embracing their roots, many producers — Massa included — have started to label wines “Derthona,” calling back to the origins of the Tortona region.

But while momentum is growing, Timorasso remains an underground fan favorite within the United States. Premier shops like Astor Wines and Saratoga Wine Exchange offer a small handful of producers at best, with Vigneti Massa leading the charge in distribution. As articles continue to sing the praises of this delicate, delicious grape, it’s just a matter of time before Timorasso takes its seat at the table.

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