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Timorasso: origin, viticulture, winemaking, and more

Between 1489 and 1493, famed Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci occasionally worked as a wedding planner, organising lavish, eccentric weddings and operetta for wealthy Italian nobility. At the marriage of Duke Giovanni Galeazzo to Isabella of Aragon in Naples, Da Vinci gifted the couple a large wheel of montebore, an ancient cheese of Val Curone, and several bottles of timuras (now Timorasso), a typical wine of Tortona. The Romans occupied Tortona as early as 123 BC, establishing a city known in ancient times as Dertona. The city’s location at the intersection of two great roads meant it became an important military station—Strabo, Pliny and Velleius all wrote of its importance. Dertona was destroyed several times during the Middle Ages until it was eventually incorporated into the Duchy of Milan and the House of Savoy. During this period, grapegrowing in Piedmont was broadscale, strongly sponsored by noble families who funded the ‘industry’ and promoted indigenous varieties.

Historical records intimate that during ancient times the communes and valleys surrounding Tortona—including Val Curone, Val Grue, Valle Ossona, and Val Borbera—were most celebrated for white wine production. Fourteenth-century agronomist Pier de Crescenzi noted that ‘the jewel of Tortona agriculture are the white wines’ and assuredly declared they had a ‘splendid future’. Later records suggest Timorasso was among the most planted of these local white varieties until at least the mid-1800s—Leardi and Demaria record its proportion as no less than fourth among all white grapes. In their landmark 1875 work, ‘Ampelografia della provincial di Alessandria (Ampelography of the province of Alessandria)’ Leardi and Demaria also acknowledge Timorasso as being indigenous to these communes and having been ‘cultivated there for some time’—recent studies also reveal a ‘first-degree parentage’ relationship between Timorasso and Lambruschetto. Most strikingly, the pair classify Timorasso as ‘second quality’ compared to Novese, Trebbiani and Cortese. Italian agronomist and ampelographer Conte Giuseppe di Rovasenda documents similar observations in Saggio di Ampelografia Universale (Universal Ampelography Essay), 1877.

Timorasso was widely planted until at least the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, during which it was the principal variety in Torbolino, a yeasty sweet wine bottled mid-fermentation noted for its cloudiness, and unfortunate taste and quality. At least 23,000 hectolitres were transported by train to Switzerland and Germany as must that was dense and dark after 12 to 24 hours of fermentation. There it was processed, filtered and returned to Italy under exotic names without any indication of grape variety or origin.

Between 1880-1945, the first and second mass emigrations from Italy, consecutive World Wars, and various widespread viticultural hazards stifled commerciality and progress. Mass emigration was particularly challenging; between 1876 and 1900, 709,076 people emigrated from Piedmont. Then, during the First World War, local vineyards were left abandoned or worked by old folk, women and children. Further loss, resistance and conflict characterised the period 1939-45. A fierce Piedmontese partisan resistance met intense German aggression, resulting in mass bloodshed. The nation exited World War II defeated and demoralised, with a growing development gap, devastated infrastructure, and looming second mass emigration. Fortunately, the United States provided more than $12 billion in aid under the Marshall Plan, which stimulated Italy’s ‘economic miracle’, a period of spectacular growth. Initially, burgeoning industrial centres benefitted most from this growth; better-paying jobs at newly established factories in Alba, Turin and further afield drew poor farmers away from smaller agrarian communes like those surrounding Tortona. 

During and immediately after this difficult period, growers replaced challenging, irregular and unproductive varieties with reliable, vigorous and more profitable alternatives. Unfortunately, Timorasso was among those abandoned due to its complicated and unreliable nature, frequently replaced by Cortese. By the early 1980s, the once abundant variety was almost extinct; scarcely a few scattered hectares remained in the hills surrounding Tortona. Such was the scale and persistence of this disappearance that Timorasso received no mention among popular varieties of Colli Tortonesi in Nicolas Belfrage’s benchmark 1999 Italian wine book, ‘Barolo to Valpolicella’—despite efforts having begun a decade earlier to restore local plantings. 

The revival

In 1978, Walter Massa took charge of Vigneti Massa—his family’s winery in Monleale established in 1879. Massa was already interested in indigenous varieties and was perturbed by local preoccupations with planting and celebrating international varieties. Massa later began experimenting with atypical vines planted in his established vineyards, which he soon realised was Timorasso. Walter bottled his first varietal Timorasso in 1987, releasing 570 bottles made from just 400 scattered vines. Courage notwithstanding, chance helped enable Massa’s pioneering work; a local grappa produced agreed to buy his Timorasso pomace providing critical preliminary capital.

Soon after, Massa gathered cuttings from scattered vines and planted new Timorasso vineyards on steep south-facing slopes between 250-300m asl. Some of these donor vines were ungrafted; phylloxera spread slower and was less damaging in Italy than in France. Massa also began convincing local growers to join his great revival. Eventually, a small band of growers formed a Consorzio—such is customary in Italian agriculture. Among the first growers to heed Massa’s call were Daniele Ricci, Andrea Mutti, Luigi Boveri, Ottavio Rube, and Piercarlo and Elisa Semino— Enio Ferretti had also already planted an organic Timorasso vineyard in 1985. Both Elisa Semino and Daniele Ricci had previously worked at Massa’s estate. In 1996 Massa and Franco Martinetti experimented with considered viticulture and oenological techniques, including vinifying and ageing Timorasso grapes barriques. In 1997 the pair produced a barrel fermented and aged Timorasso named Martin (Brozzoni). Veronelli awarded the 1999 Martin the coveted Veronelli Guide Sun Award.

In 2000, the Consorzio of Timorasso producers trademarked ‘Derthona’ to brand Timorasso grown in the Colli Tortonesi region. The Consorzio agreed that assuming a territorial designation would help local growers market their wines and establish shared qualitative standards. By 2005, 30 Colli Tortonesi (27 in Tortonesi, one in Gavi, one in Monferatto Casalese, and one in Val Borbera) growers were producing 120,000 bottles of Timorasso. Walter Massa produced twenty thousand of these bottles. A year later, 42 hectares were planted to Timorasso, 23 of which were in production. The great revival was vindicated when Guida Dei Vini d’Italia awarded Massa and Claudio Mariotto their greatest accolade, Tre Bicchieri. Most recently, growers have requested to officially register Derthona as a recognised sub-appellation with codified quality parameters. 

Vineyards, viticulture and winemaking

Timorasso is a sensitive, sickly and brittle variety prone to coulure, asynchronous maturation, floral abortion, millerandage, and grey rot. It is thinner-skinned with short internode spacing, heavy foliage and is prone to double and triple budding at bud burst. Berries are also prone to detaching from their pedicels in strong wind. Leardi and De Maria (1875) emphasised these hazards (1875), observing “many berries stopping in growth, so as to be no bigger than peas and currant berries”. Ergo, impoverished nineteenth and twentieth-century farmers abandoned Timorasso, grubbing up vines in favour of planting more amicable varieties. It’s pertinent to recognise that pre-1970, grape and wine prices were much lower, making marginal increases in vineyard work unprofitable.

Challenges notwithstanding, contemporary viticulture is much more capable than its rudimentary antecedent. It’s fair to opine that Timarasso’s sundry failures have been as much a product of its genetic predispositions as unfortunate timing and poor management. Today, vigneron carefully deliberate clones, site suitability, row orientation, pruning strategies, soil management, and much more, exploiting varying techniques depending on climate, environment and desired results. Today, wine prices are also much higher, so farming challenging varieties can be financially rewarding. These factors have helped Timorasso, which has benefitted from rising prices, greater knowledge and a warming climate.

Elisa Semino of La Colombera begins with a massal selection, which she favours for its superior olfactory complexity and biodiversity benefits. Elisa also emphasises that the physiological variations between young and established Timorasso vines—clones or not—are dramatic. Young vines are extremely vigorous, while established vines’ vigour falls dramatically—something she sees in her vineyards having reached two decades in most cases. Managing vigour and yields for quality governs growing Timorasso for fine wine. Elisa plants c. 4600/ha, prunes guyot, and maintains a reasonable bud count and selecting 4-5 bunches per plant in July, followed by a final selection in September in some cases. Ripeness is critical too, phenolic and alcohol; Timorasso is rich in phenolics and tastes best between 13-14 degrees of alcohol. Many growers are trialling tressage—leaving the apical shoot to grow without trimming—which has been shown to reduce lateral growth and enhance ripening. Limiting foliage helps reduce disease pressure and maintain sugar levels, promoting healthier ferments which result in primarily dry wines.

Site selection is critical too; Timorasso prefers ‘poor’, marginal, clayey-calcareous soils with limited water, subsequently restricting vigour and aiding ripeness. Well-exposed vineyards are also preferred, usually south and southwest facing and mid-slope with ample sunlight. In Colli Tortonesi, vineyard altitude varies dramatically, as a result, harvest dates can differ by as much as 20 days between Val Borbera and the Tortona hills—Andrea Tacchella of Azienda Agricola Nebraie has a 2ha vineyard at 500m asl in Val Borbera.

Historically, growers vinified Timorasso in bulk with other varieties. As such, very little has been documented concerning vinifying varietal Timorasso wines. Moreover, post-early-1900s vigneron had only a vague understanding of wine composition and fermentation process. These same winemakers knew even less of aesthetic considerations or the influence of varying factors on the nature and development of wine. Much less is true today. 

At La Colombera, Elisa focuses on extracting phenolics and accentuating varietal character. Hand-harvested whole bunches are gently pressed into stainless steel tanks. Fermentation is spontaneous, temperature controlled (beginning at 15? and ending at 18?), starts within one day and usually lasts around one week. Since 2008, Elisa has used flotation vats, using nitrogen bubbles to quickly separate solids, racking the remaining wine into vats for fermentation. Various other producers macerate for longer and with skin contact. Elisa’s wine remains on fine lees for nine months, with bâtonnage twice per month in October, November and December, then once per month in January, February and March.  Regular bâtonnage helps minimise reduction and ‘flesh out’ Timorasso’s phenolics which benefit from oxygen. While Elisa has never used oak, some producers (Daniel Ricci, Cascina Gentile, Vietti, Roagna, Mandirola, and Sassaia) do vinify and age Timorasso in barrique and other wooden.

Changing tides

In 1990, less than three hectares of Timorasso were strewn in the communes surrounding Tortona; today, there are more than 150 hectares under vine in the Colli Tortonesi DOC, which now includes Timorasso as a recognised variety. At present, total production exceeds 180,000 bottles. This extraordinary expansion is a testament to Walter Massa and a small vanguard of brave entrepreneurial vigneron. Notably, prominent Barolo producers have also taken an interest in growing Timorasso, including Roagna, Vietti, La Spinetta, and Oddero (a joint venture between them and Osteria More e Macine).

Keith Edwards has argued that Colli Tortonesi Timorasso might well be the ‘next big thing’ out of Piedmont. Foreign producers have certainly helped catalyse this proposition. Elisa Semino agrees, recognising the far-reaching implications of this new foreign presence. Most notably, these foreign producers have raised Timorasso’s international profile, expanded its audience and enriched its potentiality with sophisticated technical and aesthetic expertise and experience. Wrestled from the brink of extinction by a lone neoteric luminary, Timorasso makes for excellent copy, an indigenous Piedmontese variety capable of making textural, lean, and sophisticated fine wine—the perfect complement for its neighbouring red varietal stablemates. Timorasso is approaching critical mass; readers should pay close attention now and explore Derthona wine’s excitement and intrigue.

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