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When the inheritance was divided, Walter Massa did not receive the valuable part of the farm, the fruit trees and the cattle, but the vineyards. If it had been the other way round, the Timorasso would probably have disappeared into oblivion. Walter Massa not only knows how to turn grapes into wine, but also simple facts into exciting stories. The winemaker with a talent as a solo entertainer is the father of the Timorasso, his Biondi Santi, so to speak. In a restless four-hour show, he dictates the story of the Timorasso into the recorder with an inexhaustible repertoire of gestures in the vineyard, the hard-sprung Landrover, the wine cellar and during lunch, constantly waving both hands. Questions on our part are actually superfluous, they serve more to politely show our attention or to give him the opportunity to shove a fork of pasta into his mouth.

Marca Obertenga, the home of the Timorasso

Marca Obertenga... never heard of it? Actually, there is a small historical gap of about 1000 years, during which this name was no longer in use. Before the year 1000, the land around Tortona was still called this, it was ruled by old noble families who defended the land against Saracen attacks and had it worked by sharecroppers. Afterwards, this stretch of land lost its name. The nameless land lies between the Lombard Oltrepò Pavese to the east and the Piedmont Monferrato to the west, a no-man's land of vines, peach trees and meadows, pretty hamlets and rather strange, if amiable, people. The area is rather sleepy, although it could hardly be more conveniently located: The motorway from Turin to Piacenza and the one from Milan to Genoa cross here. Paolo Ghislandi (Cascina I Carpini): "The Colli Tortonesi are very centrally located, because in one hour you can be in Genoa, Milan or Turin. Until recently, there was no significant
tourism here. There is absolute tranquillity, a very gentle tourism is slowly beginning to develop. Nature is untouched and there is almost no industry. Many tourists drive past the Tortona exit to get to the sea."

(Photo: Merum)

We learned to divide Piedmont into Northern Piedmont (Gattinara, Ghemme & Co.), Roero, Langa (Barolo, Barbaresco etc.) and Monferrato (Barbera, Grignolino etc.). No one ever told us about Tortona or a Marca Obertenga. In fact, we have missed little to date. Cortese, whose wine may be called Gavi a few kilometres to the west, Barbera and other varieties grown here, produce nothing worth a trip. When wine production was resumed after the Second World War, the vineyards were mainly planted with Barbera. There was a great demand for red wine. By the 1980s, 8000 hectares were planted with vines here. The task of the Tortona hillside was always to supply the wineries of Oltrepò and Asti with grapes and young wine, mainly of the Barbera variety; there was no bottle production. The hill on the western side of the river Scrivia was different, where the Gavi had always had an independent career. In 1973, the DOC Colli Tortonesi was founded on the territory of 30 municipalities, originally only for Barbera and Cortese, but only in 1996 was it extended to include several other varieties, including Timorasso. However, even the DOC did not change the open wine fate of this region. Now, however, that the Timorasso has been rediscovered along with the ancient name of the area, everything will be different! The international illuminators of the wine world are forced to turn their spotlights also on the Marca Obertenga near Tortona. This peculiar Timorasso forces them to do so.

The origin of the "white miracle

In 1304, the scholar Pietro de' Crescenzi from Bologna wrote in his work Liber commodorum ruralium that a bright future lay ahead for the white wines of Tortona. How right he was, even if he was 700 years too early with his prophecy. Walter Massa: "I was born 55 years ago on a farm and saw how my uncle and my father sacrificed themselves for our agriculture. When I came of age, I could not bring myself to leave the farm. I actually wanted to leave, my father had even urged me to do so, but I could not. I used to stay for the sake of my father and uncle, now I stay for the sake of my nephews. There is one thing to take forward here. We had a flourishing fruit business then, the peach of Volpedo was profitable, and the vines, they yielded nothing. The idiot son got the unprofitable part of the business, the vineyards. I was 30 years old at the time and a loser. But I was not only stupid, but - worse - also megalomaniac! I had set my mind on doing something special. It was in 1987 that I vinified the grapes of my 400 Timorasso vines separately. Because I wanted to know what this wine was good for, I had kept the oenology I had learned at the viticultural school in Alba to an absolute minimum. I was able to bottle exactly 580 bottles, and by chance the wine was good. Since hardly anyone bottled wine in the area at that time, I was successful. I immediately found a bigger buyer in Milan. But he complained about the price, 7,200 lire were too much, he only wanted to pay 5,500. So I raised the price to 12,000 lire, and no one dared complain any more." In reality, Walter Massa is not quoted here in full, because he speaks without punctuation marks and pauses for breath; moreover, for reasons of space, we have omitted many amusing and interesting digressions that do not directly contribute to understanding the Timorasso phenomenon. Without caring about potholes or the landlord who puts the dessert in front of him, Massa, a trained oenologist, continues: "...after the first success, I had great difficulty in keeping the quality constant. Some years the wine was good, others unpresentable. I realised that I should intervene as little as possible in the cellar. I trust the grapes and the wine. The Timorasso stays in the steel tank on its lees, which are stirred from time to time. Sometimes the alcoholic fermentation lasts up to six months."

(Photo: Merum)

In 1990, Massa planted his first Timorasso vineyard, Costa del Vento. Massa: "That brought me to a production of 2,100 litres. Andrea Mutti was the first to also plant Timorasso in 1995, and in the following years Luigi Boveri, Terralba, La Colombera and Mariotto joined him. These are all farms that mainly sold cask wine. I told them that they should work for themselves, that they should market their wines themselves. And in fact, thanks to the Timorasso, they are now able to sell their Barbera as well. I myself also planted a massive amount of Timorasso in 2000 and increased from 1.5 hectares to nine hectares. I will only be satisfied when the total area under cultivation reaches 100 hectares. Today, 20 farms already grow Timorasso, ten of them produce drinkable wines, the others are still in the development phase". The hitherto unknown Timorasso is now preparing to become a kind of fashionable wine, but it is not a marketing invention, its roots are deep in the history of these hills. Paolo Poggio tells us about his grandfather, who practically only produced this wine in the 1920s. Poggio: "When my father was still a child, the farmers brought the still cloudy young wine to Tortona, from where it was transported to Germany and Switzerland and vinified there. But even with the Poggio family, the white wine had to give way to the Barbera over the years. Only after Paolo took over the farm did he plant a few rows of Timorasso vines again. Elisa Semino (La Colombera): "We have been bottling Timorasso for ten years. Before that, only Massa and Mutti did it. Around 2000, a whole group of winegrowers became interested in this white and started planting it. Our territory woke up very late, and that is perhaps fortunate, because we are a dynamic and compact group and recognise Walter as the father of Timorasso. Most of us are friends with each other and meet outside the regular professional meetings. For my degree in oenology five years ago, Andrea Mutti tutored me in physics and chemistry."

This is something we noticed very positively in Timorasso country, namely that no one speaks disparagingly of the other, but rather highlights their merits. The winegrowers cultivate friendship and speak of each other with respect. This is more common in Burgundy than in Italian wine regions...

The Timorasso and the other winegrowers

The cohesion of the producers can also be seen in the self-discipline with which they stick to their decisions. They have agreed to let the Timorasso mature in the cellar for at least a year, but only in stainless steel, without wood. The voluntary submission of one's own individualism to a collective decision is something very un-Italian. We can be curious when the commercial success will have sufficiently strengthened the narcissism here and there and we will be able to marvel at the first barrique Timorasso. For the moment, the cohesion still works, even a young wild man like Stefano Daffonchio (Terralba) respects the stable order: "I make Barbera with 17, 18 percent by volume, one stays in wood for 40 months, but I age the Timorasso in stainless steel. Of course I would like to experiment with wood, but I don't dare. We producers have agreed on a line, if each of us now brings in his own ideas, the Timorasso loses its identity."

Francesco Bellocchio (Vigne Marina Coppi): "When I took over responsibility for our land in 2003 and started to build up the winery, I was not overly convinced about Timorasso. I planted mainly Barbera vines and only a little Timorasso. However, looking back now at my seven vintages so far, I realise the potential of this wine. The market is also giving clear signals, the Timorasso is opening many doors for me." Stefano Daffonchio (Terralba): "I remain loyal to the Barbera, even though I sign up with the Timorasso at the best restaurants in Italy and abroad. 80 percent of my wine is Barbera, only ten percent is Timorasso. With Timorasso, demand is greater than production, while Barbera is in crisis. I'll probably plant more Timorasso, but it should remain the top of our production. This wine really works, but there is a danger that production will skyrocket and quality and prices will fall. Here, there are many farms that sell their red wine in barrels for 30 cents a litre. If I do the math, it costs me 2.50 euros to produce a litre! The market for wine in barrels is

(Photo: Merum)
What to do with wines for which there is too little demand in bottles? Much better than hawking them in barrels to big bottlers is still open wine sales from the farm. Elisa Semino (La Colombera): "What we don't bottle, we sell openly to private customers. Every weekend, countless wine customers from Milan, Turin and Genoa come and buy wine in larger containers. The wine from the oldest vines goes into the bottle, the rest into open wine sales."

The Cantina Sociale is the largest Timorasso producer after Walter Massa. 19,000 litres of 2010 Timorasso rest here in a large steel tank. Most of it will be sold openly, because the cooperative does not have a bottle market worth mentioning. The Cantina Sociale of Tortona is still stuck in a past where a winery could live by supplying bulk wine to bottlers. The winery produces 3.5 million litres of wine every year. With the current rock-bottom prices for bulk wine, it is easy to imagine how little money this company has available for additional staff and for investments in bottle quality. Walter Massa had urged us to taste the Cantina Sociale's Timorasso. We dutifully do so, but he had probably tasted this wine at a more opportune moment than we had: To us, the barrel sample makes a rather dull impression. The visit to the Cantina Sociale makes us rather sad. Everything seems so hopeless, without a future. This is all the more worrying because the fate of 450 winegrowers hangs on the fate of the cooperative! There is a dramatic lack of money and entrepreneurship here. Even most of the 19,000 litres of Timorasso are waiting for their fate in the barrel; who knows under what brand name they will reappear in the supermarkets as cheap Timorasso. But the comrades are less worried about the whites than the reds, i.e. Barbera. Cristiano Vergagni, he keeps the business together from the administrative side: "Until a few years ago, the farmers replaced the white varieties with reds, but now the trend has turned around again. We look back on a rather dark past, since this cantina has existed, there was never any investment in bottle quality, almost all the wine was sold in barrels. Bottled wines we only had two varieties. In December, we got a new director who wants to promote self-marketing. But we lack the structures to do so, compared to other cooperative wineries we are 20 years behind."

What makes Timorasso special. Our theme is appellations. Merum is interested in clearly disciplined wine categories with tradition and origin, and winemakers who compete within the framework of their respective disciplinaries. It is the common rules that make the performance of winemakers comparable and thus exciting. It is exactly the same with sport. Individual performances outside of any recognised discipline do not fall under sport, but are at best for the Guinness Book of Records, wines, detached from any tradition, only a topic for the all-too-famous wine popes. It is therefore not primarily the quality of the wines of a Walter Massa or a Claudio Mariotto that fills us with enthusiasm, but this extraordinary wine character, common to all Timorasso. This fruit, this power, these petrol notes represent appellation character, and that makes this wine a typical Merum theme. The purpose of our reportage on the Timorasso is not only to introduce the protagonists of this wine to the readers, but also to record how they face the challenge of Timorasso. Stefano Daffonchio (Terralba): "I leave the Timorasso Derthona on the skins for two or three days before pressing, the Riserva even for a week. Then I start the fermentation, which usually lasts about 30 days. Then the young wine is drawn off and aged for 180 days on the fine lees, which have to be stirred up from time to time."

Walter Massa: "This white is anything but easy to care for. If you want to avoid the grapes being attacked by rot in autumn, many hours of work are needed in summer for the foliage. This is also the reason why this labour-intensive variety has been

(Photo: Merum)
The Timorasso grape is rich in norisoprenoids, which are special, natural aromatic substances that after four or five years lead to petrol notes - known in Italy only in the Timorasso. Walter Massa: "The young Timorasso has fruity aromas, with petrol-like notes developing with maturity. This special minerality is due to the genetics of the Timorasso and the special soils. I only plant my Timorasso in sites that promise to give me these notes" Stefano Daffonchio (Terralba): "As a white wine, Timorasso is on a par with Barolo or Barbaresco. It can also be drunk young, but then we forgo its typicality, which only develops over the years. Unfortunately, I don't have the necessary operational stamina, otherwise I wouldn't put our wines on the market so young."

At Claudio Mariotto's we are lucky enough to barge into a vertical tasting with an impromptu dinner. Pigi, a strange figure, the good ghost of the Timorasso, so to speak, an always cheerful, conspicuously educated man with long hair, a big face, a wide hat, barefoot and always armed with two large wine glasses (even when we met him at Vinitaly), seems to be at home in all the cellars and kitchens of the local winegrowers. It is not clear what he does for a living, but it is immediately clear that he loves good wine, and we are pleased to learn that he always carries homemade salami with a knife and wooden board in his Mercedes for emergencies and other cases. He sometimes drives combine harvesters, we are told, and from time to time he also fetches a few chicks from France for a special chicken farmer in Italy. If you ask Pigi directly, the mumbled answer is simply: "I'm too poor to work". In any case, Pigi also stands by the embers at Mariotto and serves the round with grilled food. A chef, who also drops by, gets to work on the cooker and conjures up a tasty risotto on the plates. But the centrepiece of the long evening is Claudio Mariotto's ten Timorasso vintages. This tasting is a uniquely instructive flashback to the young history of this wine for us. There is not one bottle that is not convincing! Only the '99, Claudio's first work, seems to have matured somewhat. All the other vintages are fresh and complex. While notes of white fruits and citrus predominate in the younger vintages of the wine, which is aged exclusively in steel tanks, the petrol tone becomes more and more pronounced with increasing age. The straight line from the 2009 back to the 2000, moved only by the oscillations of the vintage characteristics, is impressive. At the latest after this vertical, our curiosity and expectation, fuelled by the tastings for the Merum Selezione, turns into enthusiasm! Sure, not all winemakers in the cellar have the professionalism of a Walter Massa or a Claudio Mariotto yet, but now that we have had the chance to meet all these people personally, we are convinced that they are the winemakers we need here now. These young people have what it takes to lead the ugly duckling of the Colli Tortonesi into the world of top Italian wines.

Success has its dangers

Timorasso is the name of a grape variety and, since it did not have one, of the wine made from those grapes. But: no one can forbid a winegrower outside the original home of the variety to grow Timorasso vines and call the wine so. What he is not allowed to do, however, is to call his wine Colli Tortonesi, because this is a protected appellation. The name Derthona is also not available, as this name is a protected private trademark. It is only normal that the winegrowers of Tortona are focusing more and more on the Timorasso, today there are 50 hectares, soon there will be 100. In a few years, this white wine has become their flagship and will probably soon be their main source of income. The Timorasso also helps to market the other wines better. Whoever speaks of the Colli Tortonesi means the insider tip Timorasso. This name is becoming more and more deeply imprinted as a brand. It is a great fortune for this forgotten agricultural area that Walter Massa experimented with the variety and was willing to share his discovery and success with the others. However, there are now two dangers: Firstly, that the Timorasso is also planted in its area of origin in sites where it only yields mediocre results, and secondly, that wines called Timorasso are also produced elsewhere. If the winegrowers do not want to repeat the mistake of their colleagues in Valdobbiadene and Conegliano, they should either soon change the name of the wine or that of the grape variety. Apparently, there have already been talks about this in the consortium. The proposal to call the wine Derthona is also said to have come up, but then it got stuck in an unknown office drawer. It is to be hoped that the winegrowers will soon agree on a solution suitable for the future. The temptation for foreign investors to participate in the success with a few hectares is curbed by the ownership structure. Most of the land in the Colli Tortonesi is still in the hands of farming families and is quite fragmented. It will be difficult for non-resident wineries to enter the Timorasso business in a big way. Unless they are content with cask wine Timorasso from the Cantina Sociale or other producers with weak marketing.

A white man stops the rural exodus

The quiet, patient Andrea Mutti is the sheer opposite of his extroverted friend Walter Massa. Mutti enlightens us about the agricultural ownership structures of this stretch of land: "Our area is a peculiarity in terms of agricultural history. While in Apulia there were the masseria, in Tuscany the fattoria and in Lombardy the cascina lombarda with large landholdings, here the estates were rather small. Here the land always belonged to the peasants. The socio-economic structure of the Marca Obertenga as it still exists today is deeply rooted in history. Although we belong to Piedmont, historically we do not have much in common with this region. We are our own people, we have traditions and a culture that have very ramified roots. Silvio Davico (Pomodolce): "In the Colli Tortonesi, there are plenty of undeveloped areas that are suitable for winegrowing. There is no danger yet that someone will have to plant Timorasso in a bad site. Rather, I hope that more and more farmers will take up the production of quality wine, because this landscape here is becoming visibly depopulated. The farms are run by pensioners, the young are moving to the nearby cities. Thanks to the Timorasso, a producer can finally earn some money with wine, I hope this will stimulate some to continue. Our agriculture urgently needs a generational change."

(Photo: Merum)
Super-fancy wine cellars with glass-cement-wood architecture, party lighting, clinker floors and elegant tasting rooms are not to be found here. At least the more successful winemakers made it to functional cement halls with the necessary cellar equipment for quality wine production. Until now, Barbera and the white Cortese were the daily bread of these winegrowers; only recently has the Timorasso provided the butter. Most of the winegrowers still make their main income from the direct sale of open wine to private customers from the immediate and wider surroundings. Most of the winegrowers, however, are not yet prepared for tourist visits, tastings are improvised, there are no exact opening hours. If you want to be sure to meet the producers, you should book in advance. Booms don't happen that quickly. Even if none of the vintners encountered lives in prosperity and nowhere more than the most necessary investments are made, the Timorasso seems to have already achieved one thing: The average age of the winegrowers has practically halved in the past ten years. Walter Massa may seem like a mischievous boy, but in terms of vintage he is the oldest of the group. What's great is that with the rediscovery of the Timorasso, Walter has managed to lure the younger generation back to the farms. Elisa from La Colombera, Stefano from Terralba, Francesco from Marina Coppi, Fabrizio Pernigotti and Paolo from I Carpini are all under 40 years young and see a sense in their fathers' profession again. They all emphasise that their professional love is also for Barbera, but that they would have stayed on the farm for the hard-to-sell red is unlikely. How many winegrowers' sons and daughters are studying viticulture these years instead of law or business administration, we will find out in the coming years.

Massa knows something about public relations, he is the star of the Timorasso, and he likes the role too. But he is intelligent enough to share his fame with the appellation and generously let his colleagues share in his glory. He knows that nothing right will come of the Timorasso if he keeps it to himself. Our Tortona week was full of great experiences. The focus was on wines, landscapes, encounters with people and of course: the food! To you, dear reader, when travelling from Alba to Tuscany, we definitely recommend the Tortona exit! The box of Timorasso in the boot and lunch at Da Giuseppe in Montemarzino or an evening at Il Cavallino could make the one-off stopover in Tortona a regular occurrence.

More about Timorasso

Article "Culture and Identity of the Colli Tortonesi" by Katrin Walter

Interview with Walter Massa

Producers from the Colli Tortonesi region in the wine guide

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