The chance to taste a whole selection of wines made from the rare, white Timorasso grape variety was too tempting an opportunity to miss so in June I jumped at the offer to make this trip to the less well known, south-eastern part of Piedmont in the North West corner of Italy. Timorasso is the latest trendy white grape variety to create a stir in the wine press, grabbing the limelight when it was tasted at the recent Master Of Wine Symposium in Florence at a tasting of rare and unusual Italian grape varieties.
The words ‘rare’ or better still ‘very rare’ have a strongly magnetic attraction for me when it comes to grape varieties. I suppose it is in part because I like championing the underappreciated or the ‘little guy’ and those varieties are often under threat of extinction; when the attraction is a ‘rare and very high quality’ grape variety it is almost impossible to resist the allure and I willingly pack up my bags and tramp to far flung places to seek out these vinous jewels.
Timorasso meets all of these criteria. Post-phylloxera, it nearly became extinct as it was more difficult to grow than some other local white varieties and it is low-yielding. Troublesome and low-yielding grape varieties often go hand in hand with high quality wines however, and this is definitely the case with Timorasso. Luckily the variety was championed by a local producer, Walter Massa (some of whose wines are listed below) who chose to replant it on a favoured hillside vineyard and bottled it as a single variety. Until 1930, there was more Timorasso than Cortese in Alessandria province and Timorasso was even used for white wines in Gavi, although Cortese has always been dominant.
Timorasso nowadays is bottled under the Colli Tortonesi DOC. ‘Colli’ means ‘hills’ and the hills where Timorasso is grown are around Tortona, a town in the south-eastern part of Piedmont, in the province of Alessandria and near the borders with Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy and Liguria. The name ‘Derthona’ is also seen on several labels; it is the ancient Roman name for Tortona and is still used as the local dialect name today. Many Timorasso producers would like to see the term ‘Derthona’ used exclusively for wines made from this variety.
I was excited to be able to taste not just one or two, but eleven different Timorasso wines side by side, including a Spumante, so perhaps at least I could begin to pin down the characteristics of this unusual variety.
What I discovered was a grape variety capable of producing both great but also very characterful wines in a variety of styles; some were reminiscent of the chalky, minerality of Chablis; others had the waxy, lanolin notes of Semillon and yet others had the oily, slight petrol notes associated with Riesling.
It made me curious to know what the parentage of Timorasso was and whether any progress had been made in researching its DNA. Again according to Walter, some research was done at Milan University which revealed that Timorasson has 2% DNA in common with Vermentino, 6% with Nebbiolo and 20% with Sauvignon Blanc. But the overall conclusion was that it was a native grape, unrelated to any other. Whatever its parentage, there is no doubt it is of a high quality.
It has extract and weight, very good acidity and intriguing aromas and flavours. It does well in a variety of styles from un-oaked and lees-aged, to richer styles, from still to sparkling, and it even carries well the bruised apple, oxidative style of some natural winemaking. Above all it can age well.
Talking about Timorasso makes me want to rush out and buy some now, only I can’t so easily. Although some wines are available in the UK and the US from specialists (see list below) they are unfortunately not widely available. But they definitely deserve to be!
Stockists: Berry Bros & Rudd, Winetraders (who import Walter Massa’s wines into the UK). In the USA, try Italian specialists Summa Vitis in California. For a fuller list try winesearcher.com.
Ezio Poggio Terre Di Libarna Timorasso Spumante 2012 – Mid lemon, cream & lemon peel nose, crisp acidity and lively bubbles with creamy, lemon flavours, good texture and weight. Manages to be both Brisk, lively and refreshing as well as gentle and creamy too. 93.
Luigi Boveri 2012 Timorasso Derthona – Paler lemon, lightly aromatic, crystalline lemon & citrus notes on nose. Tasting a little austere, lean and nervy on the palate, concentrated. Seems a little young to drink now. Chablis-like tautness. Promises more to come. 92 Luigi believes there are few white wines in Piemonte that can age like Timorasso. He thinks this wine could age 8-10 years.
Cascina i Carpini, Rugiada del Mattino 2012 – This winemaker is part of the natural winemaking movement. Golden Sauternes-like colour, oxidative, nutty, butter, toffee and spice, notes on nose – a little sherry-like. Dry, savoury, tauter on palate, with lively, juicy acidity. A cross between Fino sherry & toffee apple flavours. Intriguing. 90
Luigi Boveri Timorasso 2012 – In great contrast to the previous wine this was pale lemon, clean and reductive in style and showing delicate handling of the grapes. Pale lemon, very clean, flinty, lime and lemon oil notes on nose. Very concentrated palate, with a creamy, leesy texture, savoury, pure, refined and precise. Vivid acidity and a little twist of saltiness adding length. Very long finish. 94. A lovely wine.
Vignaioli del Tortonese Timorasso Derthona 2011 – A waft of honey and waxy lemon on the nose, broader, rounder but less concentrated or incisive on palate. Again, a little confected, lemon sweets flavour. 88
Cascina Montagnola Timorasso Morasso 2011– Pale lemon, oily, waxy, lemon, Semillon-like notes of lanolin and resin aromas and flavours, balanced by juicy acidity. Clean, correct and lively. 89
Vigneti Massa 2011 Bianco Timorasso Derthona – Mid deep lemon-gold. Incisive nose with creamy lemon meringue pie and chalky notes, hint of lemon oil and lanolin but clean and taut. Concentrated, compact, ripe citrus fruit and savoury chalky, mineral flavours. 93
Ezio Poggio Terre Di Libarna Timorasso 2011 – Flinty, ripe lemon and citrus notes on nose. Very clear, pure, taut yet accessible style. Concentrated, chalky, mineral, and focused palate. Long and incisive. 93
Claudio Mariotto Cavallina Timorasso 2011 – Golden Sauternes-like colour, oxidative nose, a little earthy, butterscotch and lemon, slight quinine bitter notes together with spice and cream. Good texture and firm structure. Not quite pristine perhaps. 89
Cascina I Carpini Timorasso 2010 – Brezza D’Estate (Summer Breeze). 2010 was a special vintage we are told. Limpid, shiny lemon-green colour. Incisive nose yet delicate, ripe lemons, quince, sea breeze saltiness. Complex, taut and savoury palate. Creamy, chalky texture and with a savoury, dry, flintiness. Firmly structured, precise and a little edgy. Exciting wine. If there was a 1er Cru of Timorasso this would be a good candidate. 94
Vigneti Massa Sterpi 2007 – Bright, deep gold, Sauternes-like colour. Heady, oily waxy lemon skin aromas, with a hint of petrol and resin, that reminds me of Riesling. Big, bold, striking style on palate, a little new world in its forthright, bright fruit, but slightly awkward. Characterful and bold. 92
My thanks go to Paul Balke and all of the Italian producers.
Photos & text © Susan Hulme MW 2014, except where indicated, by Paul Balke.
© 2014, Susan Hulme MW. All rights reserved.