Posted by Keith Wallace

In the early 2000s, I was part of the opening staff of a new restaurant, Penne, at the Inn at Penn located at 40th and Walnut. It would be an Italian wine bar serving modern Italian fare, including homemade pasta. The wine list consisted of over 100 wines by the bottle and 40+ by the glass.

As part of our training, we were required to read the book “Italian Wine for Dummies” and sit through several wine-tasting classes to familiarize ourselves with the countless nuanced wines from Italy. At the time, I knew almost nothing about Italian wine. Chianti and Pinot Grigio were the only wines served at my family’s Italian Sunday dinners. Imagine my surprise learning that I had been missing out! The first time I tried Barolo, it tasted like velvet in a glass! I was hooked! I read that book cover to cover and vowed to impart my newfound knowledge to Penne’s future guests.

Initially, one of my beliefs was that Italy was not best known for its white wines. A buttery California Chardonnay would beat an Italian Pinot Grigio any day. I expected the same to be true of any Italian white wine. However, working at Penne changed my mind as I was introduced to great whites such as Fiano di Avellino, Arneis, Gavi, Soave, and Vermentino. I was also fascinated by the fact that so many of the grapes were native to Italy and were not found anywhere else in the world. Fast forward twenty years later to find that many of these are used to make white wines, with some making a comeback, grapes that had not been listed in my copy of “Italian Wine for Dummies.” One such grape is Timorasso, indigenous to the southeastern region of Piedmont.

Timorasso (or “Timuasso” in the local dialect) was grown initially in Liguria along with Cortese, the grape used to make Gavi. It was produced as a local table wine for centuries, and it is believed to be one of the favorite wines of Leonardo Da Vinci. It is easy to recognize as each bunch has berries of assorted sizes, usually at various stages of ripeness, called asynchronous maturation, which is one reason this grape is challenging to grow. Also, the vines suffer from floral abortion, meaning some flowers never bear fruit. The grape is susceptible to diseases such as grey rot (botrytis), has thin skin, and tends to ripen late in the season. For these reasons, the production of Timorasso wine declined after WWII, with Cortese planted in its place.

It had almost disappeared until the 1980s when a winemaker in Piedmont, Walter Massa, saw something in this ancient grape and singlehandedly brought it back from near extinction. With only about 500 vines of Timorasso in his family’s vineyard, he decided to experiment. Instead of planting Cortese or Barbera as his fellow winemakers encouraged, he grew Timorasso in the hills surrounding the town of Tortona (Derthona). Colli Tortonesi is the DOC of this region, known for its rolling foothills, as is most of Piedmont. Massa cultivated this grape and, over time, produced a fascinating white wine. He found that Timorasso ages very well and that this is the key to
expressing the unique characteristics of the grape.

Sometimes touted as “Italian Riesling,” Timorasso has high acid with pronounced citrus, herbal, and mineral notes. Others have compared it to White Burgundy, particularly Chablis, due to its straw color, peach, pear notes, and creaminess with very little or no oak compared to a New World Chardonnay.

Over time, Massa convinced other winemakers in the area to begin planting Timorasso. Today, over 50 wineries, notably Vietti, a Barolo producer, are producing this wine. When Vietti decided to start making a second white wine, the first being Arneis, Timorasso was chosen. About 640 hectares of Timorasso are under vine in Colli Tortonesi and the surrounding areas, with about 500,000 bottles produced annually. Though it is difficult to find in US wine stores, a quick Google search will yield several wine sellers from which to purchase it.

Now, what happened at Penne? It opened in 2002 and was eventually reviewed by the famed restaurant critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Craig LaBan, in 2003. I was the server waiting on him on one of his many visits. He asked me to recommend a white wine for his farfalle with yellow tomato sauce, fava beans, and mint.

I suggested what I had been told to recommend, and he asked, “What do you like?” My answer: Fiano di Avellino. He replied, “Then that is what I will have.” In his review, he touted Fiano di Avellino as “exotic” and his “new favorite white.” My plan to evangelize the masses about Italian wine had worked! Since that time, Italian whites have finally earned the recognition they so fittingly deserve. And thanks to Walter Massa, another unique white from Italy has returned to this esteemed list. Timorasso is now MY new favorite white wine! Saluti!

Kristin Kelly

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