For whichever twists of genetic or environmental fate, the vast number of Italy’s white grapes, no matter how characterful, are not terribly ageworthy. Yes, there is Verdicchio in Marche and Fiano in Campania, both of which can benefit from oak-aging and subsequent cellaring, but then there are such grapes as Prosecco, Falanghina, Biancame, Verdeca, Vernaccia and a hundred plus others that show little to no improvement in bottle, and are fundamentally marred by exposure to wooden casks, even if it’s just a kiss; these are wines that trade on their vivacity and freshness rather than on complexity and weight.
But there is one grape – and a pretty obscure one at that – that has Verdicchio and Fiano and likely any other Italian white grape beaten handily when it comes to improving over time and it goes by the name of Timorasso. Native to the southernmost province of Tortona in the Piedmont region, there is a fair amount of strong evidence to indicate that Timorasso is a very ancient variety, and indeed there are written references dating back to the early 13th century that seem to describe a highly-prized variety that is the veritable spitting image of Timorasso. But then in the 1880s along came the dreaded phylloxera louse which very efficiently and nearly completely annihilated the variety, and almost every other one too. When it became understood that grafting European vitis vinifera varieties to native American rootstocks stopped phylloxera dead in its tracks, and replanting began, due to its much more cooperative nature, another local (and also quite fine) variety called Cortese (the grape that makes Gavi) almost completely filled the acreage vacated by the devasted Timorasso, which pushed it to the brink of extinction.
Thankfully, thither and yon, a few rows of Timorasso in a handful of old vineyards survived the phylloxera scourge and the neglect of the subsequent decades, until a local farmer and winemaker named Walter Massa in several test vinifications in the early 1980s discovered the great flavor and aging potential of Timorasso and began a truly single-handed campaign to revive the variety. And thanks to Signor Massa’s faith and tenacity Timorasso was saved from extinction and eventually was able to earn inclusion in two appellations – Derthona, which is dedicated exclusively to Timorasso and the multiple and mixed (red and white) Colli Tortonesi designation which the is place of origin of this evening’s wine.
So what’s Timorasso like in the glass? Well, as stated above, it’s about as burly and broad-shouldered as any white grape from anywhere, let alone one from Italy. It tends to a coppery-gold color, high alcohol levels (this one clocks in at 14%), which the wine always carries adroitly due to its hard-bodied structure and viscous mouthfeel as well as its somewhat peculiar range of flavors and aromas of dried flowers, honey, roasted nuts, savory spices, petroleum products(!) and minerals that only intesify as the wine ages, which by the way it can do gracefully for approaching two decades. If Italy ever had a grape that could run neck in neck over the long haul with cru white Burgundy, Timorasso would be it.
With a wine this big and oddly gregarious, only the boldest foods will do so I went with a classic Piemontese appetizer called salame di tonno (literally “tuna salame” made with a hash of said fish, eggs, breadcrumbs, parsley and anchovies rolled into a cheesecloth, tied off, poached and then chilled, sliced and served with an olive oil, vinegar, anchovy and caper sauce) followed by a pork tenderloin roasted with sage, rosemary, pears, yellow peppers, onion and carrot with a broth and cream pan sauce.
Claudio Mariotto Colli Tortonesi Timorasso “Cavallina” 2010
Very bright, greenish, deeply yellow golden color. Pungent, musky and toasty nose of dried limes, quince, pineapple, Shiitake mushroom, white spices, and kerosene. The palate is full, big, broad, powerful and intense but still well-balanced, elegant and cohesive with chalky,softly pointed sweet and sour flavors of apricot, honeydew melon, toasted almond and fennel seed, dried herbs. Long finish rich with quinine and candied citron. A unique and fascinating wine.