Discovering Timorasso: the rising star in Piedmontese white wine

“ The blessing of oblivion”  is the best title for the incredible story of Timorasso, the rising star in Piedmontese white wine. 

The secret to the sudden success of this grape lies in the fact it almost risked extinction in times when Italian white wine was all about big volumes and poor quality.  

Unlike other Italian white varieties that have been improperly exploited to make cheap wine like Cortese, Verdicchio or Garganega, Timorasso was virtually unknown until twenty years ago. So the producers who rediscovered it didn’t have to face any misconceptions or reputational challenges. They just did an incredible job in turning an excellent –  if hard-to-manage – gtape into a wildly popular one among savvy connoisseurs. 

The renaissance of Timorasso is strictly linked to the visionary intuitions of Walter Massa, one of the most influential personalities in Piedmontese wine over the last three decades. Belonging to a family of growers who sold grapes to cooperatives, Massa was frustrated by the miserable margins he could make by selling Cortese, the grape that had outclassed Timorasso in the Colli Tortonesi area because of its higher yields and tendency to ripen earlier, eschewing the risk of being attacked by gray rot. 

So he rescued the only half-hectare left. “ The first wines I made with Timorasso were hard to taste in their youth but improved considerably after a year or two – explains Massa – they were more similar to a red wine than to anything produced with white grapes in Piedmont”. In times in which light and inexpensive whites like the infamous Galestro Capsula Viola and creamy and oaky Chardonnays dominated the market,  achieving success with a rather austere white that needed a lot of time to achieve balance seemed almost impossible, but Massa managed to convince some of the best Italian sommeliers of its long-term potential. 

With its broad structure allied to refreshing acidity, Timorasso with a little bottle aging turned out to be a perfect match to complex dishes, and its revival was spearheaded by the attention it started grabbing when poured in fine dining establishments. 

Massa was almost alone in the early going – Andrea Mutti, Claudio Mariotto, Paolo Poggio and the Semino family of La Colombera were the only other producers who joined him on his mission, forming a small group of friends that they called the “Derthona Dreamers Team”. 

It took almost fifteen years for more producers to follow in their footsteps. The evolution of taste favored the rise of native grapes in Italy, and encouraged new growers to plant Timorasso. The total surface covered by the grape grew from roughly 60 to almost 400 hectares between 2003 and 2023. By now there are no less than 100 wineries involved in  Timorasso production, including at least a dozen Barolo producers who have purchased vineyards in the area. 

The 500-hectare threshold is likely to be surpassed in the upcoming years, and production will go up from the roughly 800,000 bottles currently marketed each year to over 2 millions.

Barolo meets Riesling 

Timorasso has more than something in common with two of the most coveted wines in the world: Barolo and Mosel Riesling

The link with Barolo lies in the geology of the Colli Tortonesi area in Southern Piedmont, where the grape thrives. The verdant hills of this rather large territory, which spans across six valleys degrading towards the Ligurian and Emilian Apennine on the southern end of Piedmont, are made of stratifications of silt, clay and white limestone – not unlike the world-famous hills of the Barolo and Barbaresco areas. 

Marne di Sant’Agata is the name of the typical blue-ish marl lying beneath legendary Barolo vineyards like Cannubi or Brunate. It actually derives from the town of Sant’Agata Fossili, which lies in the Colli Tortonesi area, and the whole geological area in which these hills were formed is often referred to as “Tortonian” (from Tortona, the chief town of Colli Tortonesi).

So why do producers in the Colli Tortonesi prefer to plant Timorasso – or Barbera – instead of Nebbiolo? “ This area is simply too dry and warm for Nebbiolo” answered Giacomo Boveri, the owner of the namesake winery. In fact, its location between the Padana plain and the Ligurian Sea, which lies about 30 kilometers away as the crow flies, forges a temperate climate with mild temperatures throughout winter, extremely warm summer days and very little rainfall (about 300-400 mm in recent years). Sunshine and heat are essential for Timorasso to reach full maturity, while limestone in the soils ensures the retention of high acidity.

The parallel with Riesling derives, instead, from the aromatic affinity with the German grape. The universities of Turin and Geisenheim in Germany recently worked together on a project that brought evidence for what wine tasters had started assuming early on – namely that Timorasso contains noteworthy quantities of norisoprenoids and TDN, the molecules that shape the distinctive aromas of diesel fuel, struck match, flint, honey, saffron and spice we usually associate with Riesling. So describing it as a fuller-bodied Riesling with greater palate concentration and higher alcohol is perfectly accurate. 

These aromas and flavors also ensure excellent age-worthiness. Timorasso may develop tertiary aromas more precociously than Riesling but all the vertical tastings I conducted proved it evolves very slowly. After two or three years from harvest it already shows lovely complexity but its profile remains very similar for about eight years. In my experience, the best wines reach their peak between ten and fifteen years. Frankly, however, I still have to encounter a bottle of Timorasso that tastes fully oxidized! 

The new Derthona subzone

One of Walter Massa’s greatest inventions was Derthona – a private trademark deriving from the Roman name of Tortona that any producer willing to produce Timorasso and conform to given qualitative standards can display on the label. Roughly three years ago, the Colli Tortonesi consortium motioned to transform this trademark into a subzone of the DOC. “ Establishing a subzone and setting stricter regulations is necessary in the face of rising volumes and growing interest,” explained Gian Paolo Repetto, the current president of the Colli Tortonesi Consortium. In fact, the big surge in popularity may correspond to a dilution of the brand and a subsequent decline in quality.

Italian bureaucracy is among the most intricate in the world, and a new subzone may take several years to be approved. Once implemented, however, the sottozona Derthona will mark a real revolution in the realm of Italian white wine. Not even the great DOCGs that protect red wines have such a strict set of regulations: maximum yields will be limited to 52 hectoliters per hectare, minimum aging to 11 months for Derthona or 18 months for Derthona Riserva. Vinification will have to take place in the DOC -except for wineries that have been producing Timorasso for many years – and the bottle will have to weigh more than 600 grams.

The tasting report 

The average quality of the wines tasted at Derthona Due.Zero, the annual event held in the city of Tortona, proved impressive as usual. Most of the wines belong to the 2022 vintage – the hottest and dried vintage ever recorded in Piedmont.  

Thanks to earlier picking, producers have managed to preserve high acidity yet alcohol levels regularly exceeding 14.5% hint at the torrid growing season. The wines are also aromatically riper and richer than usual; some even display a quirky combination of herbal flavors and precocious tertiary nuances. Don’t get me wrong: most of them are very good to excellent but I don’t think they will ever be as refined and poised as example from the really best vintages.

2021 is a radically different vintage – considerably cooler and more balanced, and some late-released wines are paradoxically shier and more youthful than the 2022s. 

Check out the full tasting report with the best Timorasso to try