Should Piedmont Be Known for White Grapes, Not Red?

Walter Massa would be the first to admit that timorasso is a vexing troublemaker. “It’s a difficult grape that produces badly,” he says in Italian. “I’m not saying little, I’m saying badly, which is different.”

This coming from the mouth of the man who single-handedly rescued the grape from oblivion and spent a lifetime promoting it as Piedmont’s age-worthy white. Even so, he finds timorasso frustrating: “Some vines are balanced, some produce too much, some don’t produce.” Other growers curse its dense canopy—more hedge than vine. They lament how easily its ripe grapes detach, potentially leaving half your harvest on the ground.

So why stake his career on timorasso? And why give it a serious shot in the first place? He replies with passion: “Because I wanted to give a serious shot to my life!”

The way things were

When Massa joined the family farm in 1978, he was an ambitious 23-year-old enology graduate, part of a generation of Italian revolutionaries bent on transforming their traditional mixed-agriculture farms into serious winemaking enterprises.

In Massa’s case, home was an obscure pocket of southeast Piedmont known for its stone fruit and bulk wine, principally (red) barbera. The Massa farm, founded by Walter’s great-grandfather in 1879, grew peaches and vines in Monleale, a village of roughly 600 people in the Colli Tortonesi, a 30-mile stretch of hills flanking Tortona. At the time he returned from school, “we had 90 percent barbera and 10 percent croatina, moscato, cortese, and timorasso”—the area’s typical mix. Their barbera was sold in tanks to bottlers in northern Italy. Smaller amounts of croatina and blended white wine were sold in demijohns to locals.

Walter Massa was the first to bottle under the Vigneti Massa label. While their cash cow was barbera, “there were people interested in having white wine in the bottle. I, as an enologist looking at this bottling picture, invested decisively in cortese,” a local grape that shares territory with Gavi 20 miles to the south. He expanded their cortese plantings and spent several years pursuing this track, only to realize “I didn’t have a feeling for cortese.”

Massa needed an alternative.

Peers encouraged him to plant chardonnay, then all the rage, or to try arneis, as Ceretto and Bruno Giacosa had done in the Langhe. “I said, ‘No! We should do it differently. Ceretto and Giacosa are known worldwide for their Barolo and Barbaresco. You taste those wines, then they offer you their arneis. We’re known for our peaches! So we need to rewrite the narrative.’ ”

Besides, he elaborates, “I didn’t want to be the one to arrive last. For me, it was already late to venture into varieties like chardonnay, sauvignon, viognier, and riesling. It surely would have been a failure, because Italy was already full of those wines—and from prestigious zones like the Collio, Südtirol, Tuscany, Umbria, the Langhe. What was I going to do? Have people taste my chardonnay?”

He dove into the history books and found that half the area had been planted with timorasso until phylloxera decimated everything in the late 1800s. What’s more, the terrain’s suitability for white grapes had been noted centuries earlier. “In 1370 Pietro de’ Crescenzi wrote, ‘The jewel of viticulture in the Colli Tortonesi is the dry white wines. They have a splendid future,’” Massa recites with an ‘I told you so’ look.

Nonetheless, after phylloxera and two world wars, farmers wanted less troublesome, more productive grapes. “The contadino is always the same,” says Massa. “He wants the barn full of hay. Timorasso doesn’t guarantee a full cellar, so our territory repudiated it. My father and uncles in the 1950s didn’t produce it. They immediately planted barbera, because the market demanded it. When I started, we preferred cortese [among white varietals], because cortese guarantees production.”

But Massa considers himself a vignaiolo—a vigneron—not a contadino. “The vignaiolo wants quality bottles, and thus is disposed to certain renunciations, certain sacrifices, certain risks.” So he took a risk with timorasso.

The origin story

Massa’s first timorasso was the 1987 vintage, sourced from 400 vines scattered amongst the family’s vineyards. That vinification behaved like any normal white, ready for bottling in April. But the following year, fermentation took the slow lane. When April rolled around, “it was still sweet! I had to wait until September to bottle,” he says. “That’s when I realized I had to go slow.”

Massa didn’t immediately grasp timorasso’s most distinctive feature: It improves with time in the cellar and time in the bottle. But taking a hint from that slow fermentation, he started holding the wine back a year. “It took courage,” he says, especially when consumers expect whites to be young and fresh. He convinced his friends Paolo Poggio and Andrea Mutti—fellow early-adapters—to do the same. He recalls telling them, “We should not make war over who comes out first. We should work together, like artisans in the field, and not compete about the release date.”

Some years had to pass before vertical tastings were possible. But once Massa could compare vintages, it hit him: “I understood that the wine became more refined with age.” Its inherent minerality comes to the fore, its stone-fruit flavors intensify, and beguiling honey-nut aromas emerge. Today Massa recommends waiting a good seven years for a bottle to peak.

By the second vintage, Massa was ready to expand his timorasso holdings. But even the largest nurseries had none—there being no demand—so a massal selection was in order. To gather cuttings, Massa went knocking in neighboring valleys. “I went to old vineyards in Val Borbera and Val Grue,” he says. “That’s when they called me mad: ‘What do you want with my timorasso?’ I had to explain I wasn’t after the grapes, but the buds. I’ve always made timorasso with my own grapes,” he notes. “I took enough material for 5,000 vines and gave that to the nursery. This was in the winter of 1988. We planted them in the spring of 1990.”

When selling timorasso in those early years, Massa had to explain what it was: an ancient variety native to the Colli Tortonesi. “Many thought timorasso was a fantasy [proprietary] name. In the years of Ornellaia and Sassicaia, they thought ‘What a nice name, Timorasso. Where did you get it?’” He laughs. “It came from history.”

Timorasso today

Thirty years on, Massa doesn’t have as much explaining to do, but he’s not satisfied yet. “In Italy, timorasso is known by only 10 percent of wine consumers: i fighi, the cool people. In America, the super cool. The rest know pinot grigio.”

But other numbers speak to an extraordinary success. Regarding Vigneti Massa, “We started with 560 bottles in 1987,” he says. “This year we have 15,000 bottles of single-vineyard timorasso and 60,000 bottles of Derthona,” the territorial name that timorasso producers have universally adopted for their basic, mixed-vineyard timorasso. “Last year’s vintage is sold out.”

Today 58 wineries make timorasso, with an annual production of 193,000 bottles. Fifty-seven growers and producers belong to the Colli Tortonesi Consortium with 127 hectares (314 acres) of timorasso planted. Vineyards are expanding by 10–15% each year, according to the consortium. One might even say there’s a land grab, with boldface names from the Langhe first in line. Borgogno and Roagna were the vanguard, followed by Vietti, La Spinetta, the young Oddero siblings, and Broglia from Gavi. “La Spinetta’s Giorgio Rivetti says the land here costs as little as a potato farm—and he’s right,” says Massa. He welcomes the newcomers, subscribing to the belief that all boats rise with the incoming tide. “People will taste this wine along with their Barolo. Good!” And when they google ‘Derthona,’ he adds, they’ll discover local names as well: “Mutti, Mariotto, La Colombera, Luigi Boveri, Giacomo Boveri, Renato Boveri, Valli Unite, etc etc.”

Massa is now 64, but as tireless as ever. During our interview, he fielded calls from the consortium, schmoozed with Vietti’s foreman overseeing a vineyard planting, and gave instructions to his sister, Paola, who lives and works with him in their mother’s house above the cantina. At lunch, he met with a fashionista who wanted his wine for an event, the next week he was off to Russia with his importer, and the week after he was the star attraction at a new Tortona wine bar, Aroma.

Massa’s unremitting work has paid off. “Yesterday we elected a new president of the consortium, Giampaolo Repetto. Until three years ago, he only drank wine. He bought a winery with 20 hectares, but no timorasso. At this moment, he’s already planted 4 hectares of timorasso. So those who have a cantina in the Colli Tortonesi cannot not have timorasso in their catalog.”

Read part II: ‘Derthona’ defined, and experiments with timorasso’s style, from spumante to orange wine.

All photos by Patricia Thomson