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Derthona: the new-old Italian white protagonist

Derthona, made with white Timorasso grapes in Italy, is assessed by Filippo Bartolotta who becomes reacquainted with its vast potential.

Located in the south-eastern spur of the province of Alessandria, in the south east edge of the Piemonte region, between Liguria and Lombardia is the Colli Tortonesi appellation roughly 50 kilometers long and 25 kilometers wide.

Here the little known Timorasso is the voice of this DOC: an indigenous white variety cultivated only with the original biotype which so far hasn’t been going through any new clonal selection. The result today is a variety with a very strong personality showing the oiliness and volume of a Chenin Blanc and the austere longevity of a great Riesling.

Timorasso has got six homes in six different valleys: Ossona, Grue, Curone, Scrivia, Borbera and Spinti valleys. A relatively large area developing from north to south with very specific geological and climatic conditions characterized by different altitudes and exposures even within the same valley. The soil is mainly the so-called Sant’Agata Fossili marls: twenty million years old toughly compacted clay with a very important presence of active calcar that can be found in Langhe and Tuscany and which is responsible for the beloved savoriness and salty minerality which Timorasso manifest in most Colli Tortonesi Derthona labels.

Derthona Julia is the ancient Roman name of the city of Tortona. Consorzio Tutela Vini Colli Tortonesi had to choose a name to protect the Timorasso wines of this area promoting and protecting the wines of the territory by identifying them no longer with the homonymous vine Timorasso, but with the territory of origin, Derthona. So, as off January 2020, the Derthona sub-area was officially presented as a specification of the Colli Tortonesi Doc.

Colli Tortonesi DOC today is spread out over 46 towns in the province of Alessandria. It all began in the early 1970s with roughly 5000 hectares of “Colli Tortonesi” doc which back then it was about Barbera, Cortese and Cortese Spumante naturale. In 1996 the DOC was modified introducing the Dolcetto variety and the Chiaretto typology, allowing many more varieties but Tirmorasso! A real shame given that Timorasso was already cultivated in the medieval ages and it has been the most cultivated variety all the way up to the second world war. Then, like may areas wine areas of northern Italy, the industrialisation took over and viticulture shrinker and with this Timorasso ended up almost extinct with only half a hectare left at the end of the 80’s.

That tiny parcel became almost 3 hectares in the early 90’s thanks to Walter Massa -true pathfinder of Timorasso- we saw the first label with this variety on it. More producers followed – liked Andrea Mutti e Paolo Poggio – the lead but we had to wait 2005 to finally see the Colli Tortonesi Timorasso appellation born.

From the verge of extinction Timorasso managed to grow in 2010 to about 30 Ha to finally get to the almost 300 ha of today while the total Colli Tortonesi acreage is roughy 1300 ha.

In 2011 the DOC saw the arrival of the Monleale and Terre di Libarna sub-appellations for the tougher mountainy valley of Val Borbera, between 400 m.a.s.l. and 600 m.a.s.l. The wines here show, if possible even more structure and acidity but always in such a creamy and voluptuous manner to allow Derthona whites always to be one of the most food friendly wines of Italy and one with a serious aging potential.

During what I felt has been so far the most impressive Italian En Primeur wine dinner at the charming ‘Anna Ghisolfi’ restaurant in Tortona a selected group of journalists had the chance to try some older vintages and some pretty delicious pairing.

The restaurant located in a sixteenth-century Oratorio del Crocifisso, a church deconsecrated after the Second World War, is one single hall room with the very modern open kitchen under a suggestive barrel vaulted ceiling. The risk for an overly ambitious cuisine was high but on the contrary Anna Ghisolfi brought surprise, fun and flavors with the uttermost reserved and measured cuisine at a perfect pace.

Various Derthona-Timorasso managed their way through creative and yet intuitive dishes like the “egg, chard white and caviar”, the “Maialino tonnato” -a pork based vitello tonnato-, to the “Cannoncino di mela” to match even the “Montebore – local cheese- ice cream white turnip and coffee”.

Four very different style Derthona impressed me during dinner: The most reactive and vibrant sample with a fantastic citrus, almond and wild fennel Lacrime del Bricco Dertona Colli Tortonesi doc Vigneti Boveri Giacomo 2018 which managed to be a great match with the starter and later with the ice cream as well; the lime and white peach driven Colombera Derthona Il Montino 2015 showed everyone the complexity this appellation can have, managing to get sweet marzipan and orange blossom notes tighter with reach flinty and petrol nuances; Sassaia Timorasso 2021 -one of the few barrel fined Timorasso- had the most Mersault head match, vanilla and elegant ripe white fruit and oak spices notes; while Mattia Ricci Colli Tortonesi doc 2021 demonstrated the versatility of Timorasso also in the “orange” macerated version keeping the petrol/floral and citrus varietal profile adding an extra iodine and saline edge.

What an amazing journey for this ancient Italian fine white. I can still remember well when during the early 2000’s while visiting the great restaurants of Barolo and Barbaresco, some more adventurous chefs and sommelier were interesting their clients to kick off dinner with a Timorasso with a little age as well. It was the nouvelle vague of Piedmont wine making back in the days. It isn’t by accident that this year award Derthona Ambassador awarded by the Consorzio was Enrico Crippa, chef of the 3 Michelin Star restaurant Piazza Duomo in Alba (CN), who stated: “If Timorasso has become so good it is also thanks to the people who make it. Today, the level is really very high. We have always believed in the white wines of Piedmont, which is why we have always included Timorasso in our menus.”

The Derthona wine makers are more and more and also more united as a group. The Derthona Due.Zero Anteprima showcased 2021 Timorasso of over 50 producers releasing now around one million bottles and pushing to triple that in the near future.

Most wines tasted during en primeur seemed to be having a relatively mild aromatic nose but suddenly explode with a fantastic creamy acidity, some extremely clean citrus fruit together with dry herbs and some hints of elegant jasmine flower and petroleum wax!

The alcohol content, usually pretty high but never intrusive: as a matter of fact it tends to give a more luscious balance to the refreshing acidity. One question mark I got was the feeling that every once in a while a touch of Spatlese style residual sugar, but later found out I was wrong: “there’s almost never residual sugar, that perception of a sweeter mouthful is given by the glycerol and the generous alcohol of Timorasso says” president of the Consorzio Colli Tortonesi Gian Paolo Repetto.

The roundness and oiliness of Timorasso seems to due mostly to the hot vintages. Climate change has affected the area pretty badly overall: last year’s rains getting to 150 mm of water, says Carlo Volpi, owner of one of the oldest and largest properties, we do not know what to do anymore, the 40°C during summer is new for us! And although Timorasso is enjoying a full maturity cycle like never before, the lack of snow and rain in pretty scary for the future.

Meanwhile though the recent arrival of a new group of 20 young vignerons together with 12 young local food producers -Derthona Giovani- committed to safeguard and promote what has become a new protagonist of the Italian wine scene is without any doubts a breath of fresh air.

Tasting Highlights

Cascina Giambolino, Derthona 2021
Sage, officinal herbs and a tropical touch. The palate is savory and juicy with an elegant lingering almond paste and white vermouth finish

Borgogno, Derthona 2021
Anise, hazelnuts, mustard flowers and lemon curd. Very juicy, plenty of flint and tension. Ripeness and juiciness, with a great lavender, bay leaf and grapefruit crunchy finale.

La Colombera, Derthona 2021
Mountain herbs, almond flowers, white peach and tangerine. A great mineral and salty palate almost with a touch of tannins so elegantly matching a white flower and citrus complexity.

La Spinetta, Derthona 2021
Gooseberries, verbena and lemongrass. A very green driven Timorasso with a very austere and structured palate showcasing some citrus juiciness. Needs time it will devolp amazingly.

Alvio Pestarino, Colli Tortonesi Timorasso Thimos 2021
A petrol-driven nose with some rosemary and thyme and a very lingering honeydew melon sweetness and a talcum powder finish.

Pomodolce, Derthona Grue 2021
Smoky and sulphureous with a lemongrass intensity and a brown sugar candy touch. The very bright acidity and powerful structure indicate the road to age-ability for this wine.

Massa F.lli Derthona 2021
Multi-faceted Timorasso with tinned peach, lemon and papaya fruit. some sweet mango balanced out by an amazing mediterranean herbs complexity.

Amerio Luca, Reis wine Derthona 2021
Classic Timorasso with petrol, gun flint and lychees. Very sweet cider and lemon palate with some riper white fruit and a lingering mineral finish.

Sassaia, Derthona 2021
White rose petals, yellow plums, pencil shavings, vanilla, coconut and a white pepper notes. Sweet white fruit driven palate with a very intense creamy finish.

Vigneti Repetto, Derthona Quadro 2021
I love the apple pie and lemon curd nose of this wine which after a second releases a more vibrant citrus character and sweet and crunchy contrasted palate which lingers gracefully.

Canevaro Luca, Derthona Cà degli Olmi 2020
Green tea, jasmines and lemons. The palate shows some riper citrus fruit with a great lime and cardamom intriguing palate.

La Colombera 2018
This stood out as the most expressive wine of the morning for its combination of licorice and lemon popcorn with a touch of anise, thyme and hibiscus. The palate is mostly a crystalline expression of mediterranean herbs and citrus fruit.

Boveri Luigi, Lacrime del Bricco Derthona 2017
The enticing perfumes, maturity and yet restrained nose of a spätlese petrol and hay nose together with dry herbs, lime peel and tangerine cotton candy.

Poggio Ezio Derthona 2016
So vibrant, crunchy, zesty and reactive which no way one would say is a seven years old white. Balsamic, mineral and citrus-driven with a very lingering finish.

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