Thanks to Claudio’s purchase of a Vespa last year (above), we finally have wheels. That means we can take off when opportunity hits, like it did last Sunday with TIMORASSO DAY (Quatar Pass Per Timurass in dialect) in the Colli Tortonesi, the hills around Tortona.
Timorasso has long lived in the shadow of cortese—of Gavi di Gavi fame—despite the fact that they were born in the same hills around Tortona and Novi Ligure, in the province of Alessandria in southeast Piedmont. While Gavi rose to prominence in the 1960s thanks to La Scolca, timorasso remained a farmhouse wine, then it virtually disappeared. Now it’s the darling of the Slow Food movement, which loves to champion quasi-extinct grape varieties.
Claudio has long championed it as well. “Trust me, this’ll be the Next Big Grape in Piedmont,” he asserted as we buzzed along on our scooter.
Thirty euros got us a glass and a map showing three color-coded itineraries. Despite the fact that Claudio had spent 35 years of his life just 20 miles south, he’d never explored these hills. It’s a lovely area, with gently rolling hills that the Italians call dolce, meaning sweet hills.
Altogether, 26 wineries participated in this Open Cellar day. Just a handful—most notably, Walter Massa, who essentially saved the grape variety—make it into the U.S. More should. (Here's a list of the area's wineries.)
La Colombera, our first stop, is one of the zone's larger wineries at 22 hectares, so nothing is very big in these parts. I wasn’t taking notes, since I just wanted to enjoy the day and not work!, so I can’t tell you how many bottles they produce. But I can say it's a third-generation family operation; when we had some technical questions, they sent the winemaker over, who turned out to be the owner’s daughter. (Brava to her!)
One thing became clear as we popped in and out of nine wineries: Timorasso is a blank slate on which everyone is writing their own script. There are no appellation rules (yet), no governing style, though a clean, straightforward, stainless-steel-fermented approach dominates. But at the same time, there’s lots of experimentation going on: Winemakers are trying how Timorasso works as a sparkler or a gently frizzante wine; they’re making orange versions, with extended skin contact; they’re even trying it as a passito wine. The Colli Tortonesi are a big viticultural lab right now, and it’s exciting to see.
La Colombera’s were mostly straight-ahead versions, though they’d left some residual sugar (confirmed by the daughter-enologist). Too much, I thought when tasting at the winery. But the following night, when we had one of their cru at dinner, it seemed just right, a rich complement to our vitello tonnato. But best was the magnum of a 2008 cru, which showed that Timorasso has the stuff to age.
N.B: Local winemakers have adopted the name Derthona, the old dialect name of Tortona, to signify Timorasso grown within the original territory.
Side note: The day contained another happy discovery: local cheesemaker Luca Montaldo. "Pure genius," said the winemakers, and I’d heartily agree. I missed the chance to get a photo of him, since I was busy taking this shot; I wanted to remember his name and address forever and ever. The little balls were filled with fresh goat cheese and sold in egg cartons. If I hadn’t been leaving the country on Tuesday, I’d have stocked up.
In the Langhe, you’d never see one of these old fiberglass tanks, here spotted at Claudio Mariotto winery. But they're ubiquitous in these parts (a budgetary thing?), along with the stainless steel you’d expect for a fresh white wine.
This guy was a real character. Once he learned I was American, all he wanted to do was talk about Donald Trump. (That occurred all spring, all over Italy.) He was steaming mad about tariffs, but he loves Melania. “Poverina,” I quipped, and a little grey-haired lady—presumably the winemaker’s mother—immediately echoed “poverina,” poor dear, shaking her head sadly.
I'd asked the winemaker to stand in front of the amphora where he ferments his new wine, which he calls “L’imbevibile,” or Undrinkable. I thought it was anything but. This was the first of many Timorassos we tried that had extended skin contact—a couple of weeks in this case, as I recall, and Mariotto promised to go further with the next batch.
Though not as acidic as Friuli’s ribolla gialla (the Ur orange wine in Italy), timorasso has significant tannins for a white grape, so it makes sense that Tortona’s winemakers are playing around with orange styles.
Andrea Tirelli was undoubtedly the smallest producer we visited, making only 8,000 bottles from 4 hectares. The winery logo is a Celtic symbol for Earth, Water, and Air, chosen to encapsulate his ideas about biodynamic agriculture and winemaking.
There’s his pink house (and our little Vespa), where his tasting was simply on the pint-sized terrace. These guys don't stand on ceremony.
Biodynamic. Unfiltered. Native yeasts. And so much more: Daring to mix cortese with timorasso in a frizzante blend, for instance. (No one does this.) Playing with extended skin contact. Going out on a limb with a dry, oxidized, passito timorasso, which was somewhat like a dry sherry.
I told Andrea that he seemed more like a brewer than a winemaker in his sense of experimentation. Beer is where the adventure is at in Italy right now. Wine has its thick rulebooks, its DOC and DOCG regulations and commands that hem winemakers in. But Timorasso has no rulebook (yet), and guys like Tirelli are taking full advantage.
You gotta love the Italians: They bring their kids to Open Cellar days. The ‘evils of alcohol’ aren’t part of their vocabulary. And the wineries provide things for them to do, games for them to play.
“Wine is like bread and olive oil: it’s got to be on the dinner table,” Claudio always says. It's not the forbidden apple—never has been and never will be.
Valli Unite is an interesting place: a cooperative of artisan farmers who come together in a rustic agriturismo, supplying its restaurant. They include a winemaking team, cheesemakers, salumi makers; and outside there was a barn with cows, a shed with horses, presumably some pigs somewhere, and a friendly painted silo.
Here’s where things got interesting with the timorasso: They had a vertical of their San Vito cru (2007–2015), which showed how their philosophy has evolved. On the older wines, they took a ‘normal’ approach to whites that highlights minerality and freshness: commercial yeast, fermentation in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, filtration. But at a certain point, they switched to natural yeast, and more recently, they started fermenting in acacia-wood vats (“There’s lots of acacia around here, and we wanted to work with local ingredients,” the winemaker explained). The result is a Timorasso that’s more lush and built for aging.
2015 was an incredibly hot year in Italy and the white grapes suffered. Valli Unite created a special bottle for this vintage, calling it Cambiamento Climatico, or Climate Change. No ducking of science on these shores!
My favorite Timorassos were made by this guy: Carlo Daniele Ricci, of the Daniele Ricci winery, another small (8 ha) organic winery with a philosophy of minimal intervention.
I would drink his zero-dosage metodo classico sparkler, Donna Clem, every day. With 3 years on the lees, the aromatics of Timorasso really sing, and the grape’s aging potential makes this a promising path.
But the sparkler wasn’t the only exceptional wine. Ricci’s old-vine San Leto is brimming with flavor—and a labor of love, with 3 days of maceration on the skins, 12 months on the lees, and 2 years in bottle before release. (A decanted 10-year-old pour spoke to its terrific aging potential.) He matures another Timorasso for 12 months in acacia casks. Another still spends 90 days on the skins. Ricci isn’t afraid to experiment, and the results are superb. And, per fortuna!, available in the U.S
If the hills of Timorasso are famous for anything, it’s for being the territory of Fausto Coppi, one of Italy’s most famous cyclists. In 2003, his grandson, Francesco Bellocchio, founded Vigne Marina Coppi (named after his mother) in the town of the cyclist’s birthplace, Castellania. There were various cru, done in a traditional modern style. But this being our ninth winery on a hot June day, we were burnt out; it was time to call it quits.
But this outing lit my fire about Timorasso, especially seeing it as a cauldron of experimentation. I’ll be back—next time with my notebook in hand.