The other night, after acknowledging that this August’s welcome yet unseasonably cool temperatures might warrant something other than Muscadet or rose, I scanned our Italian section for something with a bit more weight. Not quite ready for red, I landed on what I thought was a white wine from southeastern Piedmont, Vigneti Massa’s “Derthona.” Actually it was orange, and, ready or not, I soon realized I had inadvertently selected one of the strangest and most engaging wines in the entire shop.
The wine is made entirely of Timorasso, a little-known variety native to the Colli Tortonesi, that has until recently lived in abject obscurity. It was almost entirely destroyed by phylloxera, and much of what remained was ripped out and replanted to Cortese, the grape used in the popular (and much more commercially viable) Gavi. Timorasso is usually bottled under the Colli Tortonesi DOC, or as Derthona (the ancient name for Tortona, the southeastern Piemontese town for which the Colli Tortonesi are named), with the grape name often left off the label — another factor contributing to its anonymity. Walter Massa, known in his circles as the “Maestro of Timorasso,” was one of the few to champion the variety. Convinced of both its character and ageability, he almost single-handedly saved it from extinction.
Tasting the Derthona, I was at once grateful for the survival of Timorasso and unsurprised by its lack of popularity. This isn’t a playful quaffer or an easy weeknight dinner companion. In fact, it’s the opposite: bone-dry, with a rich, viscous, almost oily mouth feel and savory element that makes me think (like sherry or vin jaune) it would be a perfect complement to any pungent cheese.
There’s no shortage of tannin, (a result of 48-60 hours of skin contact prior to fermentation and elevage, in both stainless and concrete tank), lending the wine a grippy, muscular intensity. Acidity abounds as well, and I’m not referring to the tart, juicy, lip-smacking style that begs another sip but rather a racy, bracing sort, hard-edged and lean, almost mean.
A bit of research yielded that Timorasso may just be the unsung hero of Italian white wine. Not only is it a darling amongst the illuminati of the wine world with fans like Jancis Robinson but, like great Riesling, it has higher than average levels of sugar and acid – both factors that contribute to the age – worthiness of a wine. And though I’ve yet to try aged Timorasso, I suspect that much of the initial austerity I experienced in the Derthona will dissipate with time. Regardless, the Derthona will never be a “casual” wine that lets you mindlessly relax, chat, and forget you’re drinking it. Rather, it is immersive, more challenging, and more delightful the longer it lingers in your glass. Then, just as you swear you’ve almost nailed it, the bottle’s been emptied and the mystery remains.