Timorasso Parte 1: Un giro con Walter Massa

Timorasso Part 1: A tour with Walter Massa.

Timorasso is amazing! It has the floral qualities of a Rhone viognier, suppleness married with acidity like a fine white Burgundy (Chardonnay), and the minerality of a noble Riesling. Plus it ages like a champ: after five or ten years —even 15!— a metamorphosis will occur. It’ll charm you in its youth but give it a little bottle age, and it will have a story to tell.

Walter Massa, the maestro of Timorasso, says, “Tempo! tempo! Il vino ha bisogno del tempo!”   “Time! Time! The wine needs time!”

If it is allowed time in the bottle, it evolves into an exquisitely complex little wine with ethereal characters like some of the best Amontillado sherries out there.

How does it do all that?

Well thanks to the hospitality of the producers in the Colli Tortonesi zone of Piemonte, I was able to investigate the subject a little further. During my last trip to Piemonte I had the opportunity to try a bunch of Timorassi from a handful of producers ranging in age from barely released to 14 years old. I found Timorasso to be both delightful when young and yet completely magnificent when older.

But one of the most surprising things to me wasn’t Timorasso’s abitlity to age—okay some grapes can do that—it was Timorasso’s ability as such a young vine to produce such an ageworthy wine. The oldest wines I tried (1998, 1999, 2000) were made from Timorasso that had been harvested from vines that were five, six, or maybe seven years old at the most! These wines don’t typically see any oak (although some do) and it is common to allow some amount of skin contact during maceration. Therefore, from what I found, it’s the true character, integrity, and expression of Timorasso itself, that make it so amazing.

So what is Timorasso?

Timorasso is a white grape indigenous to the hills that are to the southeast of the city of Tortona in Piemonte. Even though it has been growing in the area since ancient times, it was not favored until about 20 years ago because it is so difficult to grow. But in the late 1980’s Timorasso’s potential became evident to a man by the name of Walter Massa. He was the first to recognize that it had qualities different than all others in his area. In 1990 he committed one of his most ideal vineyard sites to the planting of Timorasso, a spot he named Costa del Vento. It is a 1.4 hectare plot with clay and limestone soil, on a western facing hillside, next to the village of Monleale. Despite what everyone else was doing, he planted the vineyard anew with only Timorasso, and set out on an adventure to see what it could bring. Many of the local growers followed shortly after him in the early 1990’s, planting Timorasso vineyards throughout the hills of Tortona, the Colli Tortonesi DOC area.

Today the producers continue to work towards obtaining a DOC status for Timorasso under the name Derthona DOC, the old roman name for Tortona. Currently there is only the Colli Tortonesi DOC and it is a broad denomination, unable to capture the individuality of Timorasso. Under the denomination one can bottle any of a large number of red and white grapes and blends. Reds that are commonly grown include Barbera, Bonarda, Croatina, Freisa, Dolcetto (locally called Nibiö), and Nebbiolo. (And there are some fabulous Tortona wines made from these grapes but that is really another story!) But also allowed are Aleatico, Grignolino, Lambrusca di Alessandria, Sangiovese, Pinot nero, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. If you don’t already know, all of these grapes grow in abundance outside of Colli Tortonesi and therefore are not unique to the denomination.

For whites, the following grapes are allowed to bear the Colli Tortonesi DOC: Cortese, Favorita, Moscato, Pinot grigio, Barbera bianca, Riesling, Muller Thurgau, Sylvaner, Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, and finally — Timorasso. Cortese, Favorita, and Moscato enjoy their glory in neighboring regions within Piemonte. I can’t speak to Barbera bianca but Pinot grigio is everywhere. Then of course Riesling, Muller Thurgau, and Sylvaner identify more with Germany and the rest of the grapes are French.

So what about the beloved little Timorasso? Where else does it grow?

Virtually nowhere. There are a total of 200 hectares within the Colli Tortonesi zone and it grows a little bit in neighboring Novi Ligure. Some believe it also grows in small amounts in Spain.

While Timorasso doesn’t have a bountiful and extensively documented history like that of Viognier in the Rhone, Chardonnay in Burgundy, Riesling in Germany, or the wines of Jerez, Spain, the past 20 years have given its growers the faith to press forward and pamper their unique grape, Timorasso. It is one that gives a distinctive identity to their hills — one to which the hills can give an identity.

Three valleys compose the hills of Tortona: Valle Grue, Valle Ossona, and Val Curone. The region lies in the far southeast corner of Piemonte between Lombardia (closest to Oltrepò Pavese) and Liguria. From the ridges, on a clear day, one can see both south into the region of Liguria and at the same time, east to Lombardia. I saw it myself from Walter Massa‘s jeep, as we drove from Pomodolce in Montemarzino to Andrea Mutti in Sarezzano.

When I arrived at the winery of Walter Massa in the village of Monleale, he asked me whom else I was planning to visit. I rattled off a few producers and he looked at me inquisitively and asked me why I wanted to know about Timorasso. I told him (in Italiano of course) that a friend of mine, a producer in Barbaresco, had told me a couple years ago that it was the most interesting white grape in all of Piemonte and ever since then I have been trying to find more of it. I love Italy for all of its autochthonous varieties, and I especially love Piemontese wine. I was on a quest to research the Colli Tortonesi DOC and I wanted to know everything I could. He said, “You have come to visit me, but the most important way to learn our zone is to understand the small producers here. They also make wonderful wine! We will go for a tour!”§

Renato Boveri

29 marzo, 2012

Our first visit was just across the piazza of Monleale to a super-old school producer, Walter’s uncle, Renato Boveri. I felt honored as Walter introduced me and we walked through Renato’s living room through a small door and down a staircase that led to an old cellar. Walter had known me less than 20 minutes and he was already taking me through the personal residence of his family — all for the quest to help me better understand the culture of winemaking in his hills. We tasted through a couple wines, out of tank, all fresh, simple, and piacevole (enjoyable). I didn’t write anything specific as I was just trying to capture and remember what this true Tortonesi man and his wines were all about. Later Walter mentioned how his uncle, Renato, used to sit right next to Walter’s father at dinner every night from the time he could remember until just a few years ago, talking about wine. He obviously respects his uncle a great deal and must have learned a lot of what he knows from him.

Pomodolce

29 marzo, 2012

Our next stop was a restaurant, Ristorante “da Giuseppe,” in Montemarzino. I didn’t know what to expect but since I was obviously a captive for the adventure, I followed him in. The restaurant was empty save for a couple of employees. (It was around 3pm in the afternoon.) Walter asked me if I’d eaten lunch and I lied, saying yes. But he could see right through me and I admitted that actually I had just eaten a large breakfast. After a little shuffle, a cook came out of the kitchen, pushing a wheeled table and upon it were a huge cutting board, a huge knife, and a huge house-made salumi. They sliced a few pieces for each of us (I assumed Walter had said, “Bring this girl some food! I can’t be giving her all this wine on an empty stomach!”). Soon the owner showed up to pour through his Pomodolce wines.

He makes two Timorassi: Grue and Diletto. Grue is a selection from the highest parts of the vineyards. Diletto takes from different parts of the owned vineyard sites. He makes also Barbera, Croatina, and Nebbiolo, all of which impressed me, especially the Barbera.

 

Pomodolce Diletto 2010. Timorasso 100%. Clean, fresh and floral with a clear minerality and fresh apricot fruit. ★☆

For your reference, the restaurant and winery websites are:

Ristorante “da Giuseppe”
Pomodolce

Mutti

29 marzo, 2012

The next stop was Andrea Mutti. They’re quite a couple—Walter and Andrea. It’s obvious they’ve been colleagues and friends for a long time. Walter walks around like he owns the place, but somehow does it with the utmost respect. Andrea’s single vineyard Timorasso is called Castagnoli. The vineyard Castagnoli, which he planted in 1991, wraps around the top of a hill, set a little higher than most, reaching above 300m in elevation. The ideal growing altitude for the Timorasso vine is between 250-410m; this is where one can find the best vineyards.

Mutti Castagnoli 2003. Timorasso 100%. Lots of vanilla in the nose with pine, herbs, strawberries, and peaches. Smooth and fleshy, with a tinny background flavor. Mostly reminding me of an Amontillado Sherry with a mix of almond, toffee, metal, and citrus. Fresh given it’s age but simultaneously layered. Maceration and fermentation take place in cement and the wine rests in stainless steel and then in bottle for a total of about 18 months before release. ★☆

Vigneti Massa

29-30 marzo, 2012

Walter’s winery isn’t particularly small or large compared to anyone else’s in the area. He has about nine hectares planted to Timorasso and another 11 for Barbera and Croatina. In 1997 he started bottling the Costa del Vento as a single vineyard wine and the Sterpi bottling came about in 2004. Sterpi as a single vineyard wine is an interesting story. After a few years of producing Costa del Vento, Walter found that there was a demand for the higher level (i.e., single vineyard) Timorasso and he began to grapple with how to meet this demand. If he simply increased the production of Costa del Vento, it might not be as good as it originally was. But if he did not, then how could he meet the demands of the consumer who wanted the most interesting Timorasso? He also didn’t want to inflate the price of his Costa del Vento to steer the demand away because then it would be out of context with the prices of rest of his wines. That’s when he started to look at Sterpi as a solution. He finally realized that Timorasso from that plot had surpassed his expectations as a single vineyard wine and that is when he decided to bottle it on its own, in 2004. Derthona comes from various sites (as is the case with most wineries’ Derthone).

Massa Derthona 2010. Timorasso 100%. Fresh and light with apricot and peach fruit. A pronounced, fresh minerality with just a hint of marzipan. This will grow and change and become more complex, and even better, with time. ★★

Massa Sterpi 2010. Timorasso 100%. Tons of minerals, just bursting out of the glass. You can smell it without even putting your nose in. Getting closer you find scents of smoke and apricot. It’s a spicy one with both a richness and pronounced acidity balanced on the palate — but certainly balanced. Sterpi and Costa del Vento are situated right next to each other but Sterpi is mostly limestone, whereas Costa del Vento is composed mainly of clay soils with a mix of limestone. Sterpi is SW exposed and was planted in 1996 and 2006. ★★★

Massa Costa del Vento 2010. Timorasso 100%. The vines of Costa del Vento were planted in 1990 and 2004. On the nose this one displays a rich warm bouquet: herbs and peaches. Rich and fruity in the mouth with a spicy finish — spicier, richer, and more fruity than Sterpi. It’s a western exposed slope with clay and limestone soil. ★★☆

Massa Costa del Vento 2007. Timorasso 100%. (From February 22, 2012, a Piemontese dinner I put together for some friends. I bought it in Alba in November and carried it back to California.) On the nose an ethereal bouquet of hay, vanilla, tropical fruit, polished aluminum, and a flowery yeast. Soft and smooth on the palate. Then Brazil nut, nutmeg, and flavors of banana giving complexity to a bright finish. ★★

Massa Costa del Vento 1998. Timorasso 100%. The story behind this one is that when we showed up at Ristorante “da Giuseppe,” they showed Walter the bottle and told him that an important Barolo producer (I think it was Pietro Ratti) had been there two nights before, ordered the bottle, had a glass, and left the rest. So we tried it. Amazing! In the bouquet is woven a mix of smoke and flowers with a metallic minerality. Wild strawberries and cooked peaches come later with fresh flavors of lemongrass and caramel. It has a nutty and clean finish, also showing a bit of ethereal Sherry qualities. ★★☆

The next two producers, La Colombera and Martinetti I visited on my own and were not part of my grand Colli Tortonesi tour with Walter Massa.

La Colombera

30 marzo, 2012

La Colombera is a father-daughter wine making team. This friendly family owns a 50 hectare plot in Vho, upon which 20 are planted to vine. They planted their vineyards starting in 1997.

The La Colombera Timorasso wines are made by leaving the must on the skins for about two hours after crushing. After settling, the skins are removed and fermentation takes about 15 days. The wine is left to rest for nine months in stainless steel, sur-lie, and is bottled the following August. The Timorassi are left in bottle for about 6 months before release. I’m undecided on my opinion of these wines. They are different from any of the others I tried and I’m not yet sure how I feel about them.

La Colombera Derthona 2010. Timorasso 100%. Sourced from four vineyard spots on their property. Layers of scents: almonds, peaches, apples, wet stones, and white flowers. Bold structure in the mouth, but shows balance with acidity. Tasted again in early May, 2012. At first the wine seems a little rich, maybe too bold but the integrity of the wine keeps it changing and softening. After 24 to 48 hours open, it became more and more enjoyable, telling me perhaps it just needs a little age. ★

La Colombera Il Montino 2009. Timorasso 100%. Sourced from their most favored vineyard site for Timorasso. Quite floral with camomile and acacia scents and honey. Still maintaining a marked minerality, however on the palate, but the finish I find to be a little too peachy and slightly bitter. Reminds me most of a Viognier of all the wines, mainly because of how incredibly floral it is.

La Colombera Il Montino 2008. Even more floral than the 2009 and rounder and richer on the palate. It’s grassy with honey, apricot and aromas of wildflowers. Quite round.

For your reference, the winery website is:

La Colombera

Franco Martinetti

27 marzo, 2012

I discovered Martinetti at Vinitaly. Franco Martinetti‘s son is one of the owners of the famous gelateria, Grom.

Martinetti Biancofranco 2010. Timorasso 100%. Floral with scents of tropical fruit. Good minerality with fresh flavors of pear on the palate. The must is left to rest on the skins for two days before pressing. The Biancofranco is aged only in stainless steel. ★★

Martinetti Biancofranco 2009. Timorasso 100%. Scents of caramel and Sherry with pears and yeast. Unctuous vanilla and toasted almond counter balanced with a brisk acidity in the finish. A warmer year than 2010. ★

Martinetti Martin 2010. Timorasso 100%. This wine is named after the King Fish. The Italian name for this fish is Martin pescatore. A strong floral bouquet with acacia and a touch of caramel. A really enjoyable minerality and brightness with finishing flavors of apricots and raw almonds. The Martin is made from a special selection of lower-yield vines and is fermented in fine-grained French oak and rests also in French oak for 14 months before bottling. The minerality won over any discernible flavors or aromas of oak in this wine. ★★★

For your reference, the winery website is:

Franco Martinetti

In Timorasso Part 2 I review a vertical from Claudio Mariotto: fourteen Timorassi from 1999-2010!

† In Italian to turn a word plural that ends in an “-o,” you add an “i.” So instead of calling more than one Timorasso “Timorassos,” I’m going to use the Italian version throughout this blog: Timorassi.

‡ Timorasso may also be called: Timuassa, Timorazza, Marasso, and Dolce Verde.

§ One of my favorite things about Piemonte, that I have not experienced so much in any other region, is the camaraderie among producers. It is obvious they are not working to better their name in so much as they are working for the sake of the grape, the integrity of the wines, and the reputation of the territory. They all have the same goal, but individually go about reaching that goal a little differently. They recognize each others’ individual values as an integral part of the whole. Their camaraderie makes it easier for an outsider to understand the bigger picture: the tradition partnered with the current movements. (… because really? When would you ever arrive at a Napa winery and the owner would personally take you in his jeep to neighboring producers lesser known than him, so you could learn the true character of Cabernet Sauvignon? Yeah. Never.)

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