In a corner of eastern Piedmont you probably haven't heard of, Walter Massa is considered something of a prophet.
At 58, Massa is known as the farmer and visionary in Monleale (pop. 600+) who resurrected the local white Timorasso grape from near extinction with wines celebrated in Italy and beyond. In the U.S in recent years, his bottlings have found an important niche on top Italian wine lists.
"Walter is a pioneer and a hero for his dedication to reviving Timorasso," says Gianpaolo Paterlini, wine director of San Francisco's Acquerello. The variety, he adds, has "the potential to make one of the top five most important Italian whites."
"I love that Timorasso can combine a round, almost honeyed, waxy texture with crisp acidity and great minerality. I can't think of many varietals that combine all those characteristics," Paterlini adds. "I view Walter as the only real reference point."
Some 38 years ago, when Massa finished enology studies and returned to his family farm and vineyards in the Colli Tortonesi appellation, Timorasso wasn't rolling off the tongues of noted sommeliers. In fact, no one was even bottling the stuff. The low-yielding indigenous grape had been almost entirely replaced by more productive and better-known varieties.
"No one believed in the vines," says Massa. Just in from a morning's work in the vineyards, he wears lime-green swim trunks and a red polo shirt; plant cuttings cover his light hair and black Wayfarer glasses ring his blue eyes.
"This area always produced lots of wine, but it was never valorized," Massa says, standing in the dining room (which doubles as the winery tasting room) of the family home he shares with his sister's family and his mother. "My idea was to valorize this terroir that lacked nothing."
Since the late 19th century, Massa's family had produced bulk red and white wines. But Walter believed the local clay, limestone and marl hills east of Tortona were capable of much more—even greatness.
Massa replanted vineyards, cut yields and began bottling wines made from the area's dominant grapes: red Barbera and white Cortese (the workhorse of Gavi, just to the south). Then in the late 1980s, he began experimenting with 2.5 acres of Timorasso in his Costa del Vento vineyard, which represented half of the entire region's remaining Timorasso.
"I set out to make a clean wine with Timorasso," Massa says. He worked years in obscurity, testing different techniques and fermenting with indigenous yeasts until the 1995 vintage met his standard for release. In the years that followed, Massa discovered something else: "The longer the wine aged in bottle, the better it became."
Massa rallied the owners of the two other remaining small Timorasso plots and over the years grew a Timorasso association from three producers to 23. The area of Timorasso vineyards has shot to 173 acres, producing close to 17,000 cases—most of it made following Massa's style of fermenting in stainless steel tanks, where lees are stirred for a full year.
Ironically, Massa is one of the few producers who doesn't put the name Timorasso or the Colli Tortonesi appellation anywhere on his bottles. He opts instead to use the name he trademarked for local growers: Derthona (Tortona's ancient name).
"A grape will never have success," Massa insists as he drives his Land Rover through the roller-coaster vineyard hills. "It is the terroir that makes success."
Vignetti Massa makes one base Derthona (which retails in the U.S. at about $25) and three single-vineyard crus (about $60)—all classed as simple white table wines.
Though Massa was instrumental in the creation of a Monleale subappellation within Colli Tortonesi for local Barbera, he abandoned a similar effort for a Derthona Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) for Timorasso saying it was "too much bureaucracy."
Massa himself is a complex blend of perfectionist and free spirit. Unmarried with a 4-year-old son, two nephews and a niece, he laments the shrinking of the Italian family and its potential impact. Among Timorasso producers he counts too few offspring.
"There are much too few for the future," he says. "We need more talent, passion and love. Much more."