There is great joy in exploring the famous wines of Italy – noble Nebbiolo, superlative Sangiovese. But there is greater joy still in taking the road less traveled, discovering Piedirosso from Campania, Pelaverga from Piedmont, or Schiava from Alto Adige. Wine is produced throughout Italy, in every region, and there are more indigenous grape varieties there than in any other country on earth. I have been drinking Italian wine for more than three decades, and I frequently encounter wines I am entirely unfamiliar with, made from grapes I have never heard of before.
The latest is Timorasso, an ancient and rare grape native to the Tortona Hills of southeastern Piedmont, near the border with Lombardy. The vine is vigorous but shy-bearing, producing grapes high in both sugar and acidity. The wine is pale gold in color. It has a notable honeyed character and a pleasing nuttiness. Fruit tends toward either stone fruits or citrus. Riesling-like petrol notes are occasionally apparent. The wines are surprisingly rich in texture yet retain a very pure minerality. They can be drunk young or cellared for a decade or more.
It’s possible that no one would be enjoying Timorasso today if it were not for the particular efforts of one man, Walter Massa. Winemaker. Iconoclast. Visionary. He makes his home and his wine in the little hill town of Monleale. Since the late 1980’s he has championed the local Timorasso grape. At first his was a lonely vigil, but over time he has inspired other producers to join him and the few hectares he saved from oblivion have grown to over sixty today. Walter himself farms 22 hectares in eight distinct vineyard areas. Total production at Massa is about 13,000 cases, of which 5,000 is Timorasso. He makes two estate wines, one from younger vines, that are a great introduction to the varietal. But it is his three single vineyard “crus” that really shine, breathtaking examples of what can be achieved with this grape.
Sterpi is local Piemontese dialect for the Italian sterpaglie, “scrubland”. Of the three, Sterpi exhibits the most obvious minerality, leaner in style and less opulent.
Palazzo Montecitorio is the palace in Rome where the Italian Chamber of Deputies meets. An eldercontadino in Monleale used to say with a mock-prideful air when he was going to work the vineyard that he was “going to Montecitorio”. Montecitorio is the “Goldilocks” of the three wines, precisely splitting the difference in style between the Sterpi and the Costa del Vento while combining elements of both.
Costa del Vento means “the Side with the Wind”. Costa del Vento is the oldest and most famous of Massa’s three Timorasso crus. It is the richest in style, big and lush, layered and complex.