A view over the Colli Tortonesi ©Portovino Italiano
A view over the Colli Tortonesi ©Portovino Italiano

And Now a Word from the Master of Timorasso

Walter Massa on the Rise of Timorasso and a Review of His Derthona

6 min read

Having issued praise for Vietti’s new Timorasso, it seems natural to ask: what about Walter Massa? The grape’s savior has been instrumental in coaching new producers like Vietti with their first efforts at Timorasso, and he has cultivated a singular reputation of his own. Massa is a little bit like the David Byrne of Italian wine: he is a winemaker’s winemaker whose subtle influence on the wider genre is only now beginning to be appreciated. Massa’s white wines are known for their easy grace, impressive structure and delicate aromas, and they have slowly but assuredly set the standard for Piedmont. I’m only now getting a sense for how truly wonderful they are.

When I reached Massa via Zoom for my July SevenFifty Daily article on the rise of Timorasso, I asked him what makes Timorasso such a great grape, especially in comparison to Arneis, Cortese and Erbaluce, three of Piedmont’s better-known but less interesting white grapes. “É simplice,” he said slowly, his patient timbre suggestive of his approach.

“L’uomo è nato con molte difficoltà, e quindi ha sempre preferito la quantita alla qualita”

(Man was born with a lot of difficulty, and therefore he always preferred quantity over quality.)

The Godfather of Timorasso

He went on to chart the semi-recent history of the Colli Tortonesi: how it was very poor after World War II, and how farmers needed to focus on volume just to survive. Now, as a fourth generation farmer living in age of relative wealth and opportunity, he has had the luxury to put his soul into his wines and let the world know about.

2017 Vigneti Massa Derthona Colli Tortonesi Timorasso ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
2017 Vigneti Massa Derthona Colli Tortonesi Timorasso ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

And touting Timorasso has been his M.O. for some time. Like Johnny Appleseed, he started his campaign by visiting noteworthy producers of the Langhe and Monferrato and leaving his Timorasso wines behind. He cultivated a modest and specialized export market, particularly to the United States, and he shared his knowledge of the grape — the do’s and don’ts he’d learned over many vintages — with other producers in the Colli Tortonesi. Together, they created a unique identity and people took notice. Soon, those producers from the Langhe and Monferrato, with their capital and international connections, came calling — Borgogno, Scarpa, Roagna and Pio Cesare as well as Oddero and Vietti.

Massa had just come from a group lunch with several key producers — including Luca Currado of Vietti — a regular occurrence where they discuss the state of affairs with Timorasso. While it was sort of heartwarming to hear about this lunch and the wines they poured (man, I would have given anything to break quarantine and be teleported to that table), the truth is that the wine known as Derthona* is at a crux.

Word is Out

The recent expansion of Timorasso plantings across the Colli Tortonesi has been significant. With several new wines on the market, safeguarding Timorasso’s suddenly visible reputation is now crucial. As the Currados and Odderos told me, making quality Timorasso is no easy feat. The grape is fickle, and its preferred terroir — the Colli Tortonesi — may be an idyllic backwater at the moment, but that could forever be altered if over-development and monoculture occur. In some ways, the Langhe has suffered from too much of a good thing. The trick now is to protect the Colli Tortonesi while tapping into its awesome potential. As Massa’s importer, Ernest Ifkowitz, put it, “they’re not going to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

Winemaker Walter Massa of Vigneti Massa. ©Portovino Italiano
Winemaker Walter Massa of Vigneti Massa. ©Portovino Italiano

If Massa was concerned, he didn’t show it on our call.

“Io sono uno degli uomini più fortunati del mondo …”

(I am one of the luckiest men in the world)

He went on to say that it was a privilege to carry on the tradition of winemaking in Monleale (his hometown) but have the ability to take this wine to the world stage and learn — from a business perspective — from the Langhe producers who had taken the world by storm with Barolo and Barbaresco.

“Perche le Langhe sono la stella cometa dell’Italia enologica … giornalisti e importatori preferisco andare ad Alba e Canale d’Alba … piuttosto che venire a Colli Tortonesi. Tra pochi si mi anni anche Tortona diventerà una meta mondiale del vino.”

(Because the Langhe [producers] are the comets on Italian winemaking … journalists and importers prefer to go to Alba and Canale d’Alba, rather than come to the Hills of Tortona. In a few years, Tortona will also become a world destination for wine.)

An Iconic Wine

Massa’s Derthona may very well be the comet of Italian white wine. I adored its complexity, the way it spoke with patience and detail and vivacity. A few days later, when I talked with Massa, I couldn’t help but notice that he speaks in a similar way, that the wine reflected its maker beautifully.

Timorasso certainly has a spectrum, and Massa anchors one end of it: the side that is rich and brooding, full yet romantic and detailed. Another Colli Tortonesi producer that I tried during my research for the SevenFifty Daily article — Ezio Poggio — revealed a racier, crisper side to the grape. Vietti and Borgogno’s wines reside somewhere in the middle, offering a little of each.

Drinkers of Italian wine, myself included, need to add Timorasso to their rotation at home. It is a grape that reveals so much tension, so much potential for surprise, and so much character, we’d be mistaken to ignore its wines any longer.

*Derthona was originally a vanity name Massa came up with for his wine. He even copyrighted it, but he has since lended it to other producers and it has become synonymous with Timorasso wines from the designated zone of Colli Tortonesi. Efforts are underway to codify the term more clearly in the region’s disciplinare.

2017 Vigneti Massa Tortonesi Derthona Timorasso

2017 Vigneti Massa Derthona Colli Tortonesi Timorasso ©Kevin Day/Opening a BottleColli Tortonesi DOC (Piedmont)
Grapes: Timorasso (100%)
Alcohol: 13%
Opinion: ★★★★★ (out of five)
Food-friendliness: Impeccable
Value: Exceptional

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A beginner might like: For those who feel like white wine is consistently boring to your palate, this is the wine to change your mind. It has structure, tannin and substance, and most importantly, a rich bouquet you’ll remember for a while.

A wine obsessive might like: The comparisons to dry Chenin Blanc from Savennières or Vouvray, which I feel really hold up. This rounded, gentle white wine grows in stature as it opens up, and when the acidity kicks in on the palate, it conveys a rare salinity that asks for a second sip. I would be curious to see how long it could age. Massa also has three cru Timorasso wines: those are next on my wishlist.


Note: This wine was provided as a sample by Walter Massa’s importer, Portovino Italiano, upon my request with a story pitch. Learn more about my editorial policy regarding samples.

Furthermore, Massa’s importer joined the call to help translate Massa’s words so that the interview could be conducted. My transcription of quotes was pieced together thanks to Ernest Ifkovitz’s translation as well as clarity from a translation app. In other words: pardon any imperfections you might see in the translation as I continue to learn Italian.

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