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“A Piedmont White Saved From Extinction”

January 13, 2021

Story: Leslie Pariseau

photo: PUNCH

The bottle Kayla Mensah can't stop thinking about helped bring timorasso back from obscurity.

“Italian wine will always be my first love,” says Kayla Mensah of Domestique, a wine shop in Washington, D.C. Mensah spent two years as a sommelier and beverage director at Lincoln Ristorante in her native New York City before becoming the inaugural recipient of the Major Taylor fellowship, a BIPOC-focused program that aims to break down wine’s culture of gatekeeping. (Mensah is now a sales and operations associate at Domestique where she spends most of her time curating cases and, in her words, "obsessing over Italian wine.") While at Lincoln, she spent time exploring lesser-known grapes in places like Piedmont, a region best known as the home of Barolo and Barbaresco. While other Piemontese grapes like pelaverga and ruché have seen renewed interest over the past decade, for most, they remain novelties compared to the popularity of nebbiolo. Even more obscure are the region’s white grapes, notably timorasso. “This little-known grape from Piedmont almost went extinct before a few winemakers decided to bring it back,” Mensah says of the variety, which had, until the 1980s, all but disappeared from vineyards.

One of those winemakers, Elisa Semino of La Colombera, a small family estate based in Tortona, has been part of the local charge to restore timorasso to its rightful place within Italian wine heritage. “She is so excited about it,” says Mensah, who while at lunch in New York had the opportunity to meet Semino, who struck her as humble and generous. “She’s into building the community of Piedmont as a whole.” Semino’s enthusiasm resonated with Mensah, who was drawn to La Colombera’s mission to help resurrect a forgotten tradition. For generations, the estate has grown grapes—barbera and dolcetto among them—but began forging its own winemaking reputation when Semino’s father, Piercarlo, began making and bottling his own labels in the ’90s, rather than selling the fruit off. Today, the family focuses on growing and making timorasso with organic practices and indigenous yeasts.

Northeast of the Langhe, since lauded vintner Walter Massa’s first experimentations with timorrasso in the 1980s, Colli Tortonesi has become the spiritual center for the long-lost variety. Where once only a few scattered acres were dedicated to the obscure grape, of late growers large and small have begun planting timorasso in the Colli Tortonesi, with over two dozen producers seeking what might be Italy’s next great white. Thick-skinned with great aging potential, timorasso’s rich texture, defined structure and waxy, bitter almond edge strikes some as a cross between chenin blanc and vermentino.

“I’m a big fan of the fall and winter white,” says Mensah. “[La Colombera’s] Il Montino falls into that range for me.” The massal selection bottling from calcareous soils sees 10 months on the lees and a year and a half in bottle, and is an ideal candidate for cellaring, according to Mensah. “It’s not outrageously expensive, especially by Italian wine standards,” she says, noting it would be an affordable alternative to a white Burgundy. The single-vineyard Il Montino is a step up from La Colombera’s Derthona bottling (the Roman word for Tortona, and a label term forged by Massa), but both are 100-percent timorasso and reflective of the wines that might have been made a century ago, before the variety all but died out following World War II. And though La Colombera also grows and bottles cortese, a high-yield, easy-growing white grape, timorasso is undoubtedly its crown jewel. “It’s one of those wines that shows terroir on the palate,” says Mensah. “It’s definitely a gateway wine.”

La Colombera Il Montino Timorasso 2016

Made by: Elisa Semino
Region: Colli Tortonesi, Piedmont
What it tastes like: “It has great stone fruit, apricots, peaches,” says Mensah. “It really showcases minerality and acidity, which for me, makes it the perfect white wine. It’s totally accessible.”
Why it matters: “This is the future of winemaking. Reviving older varieties and seeing how they react to climate change is going to be how we make wine sustainable,” says Mensah. “That a woman is at the helm is still far too uncommon in the wine world.”
Where to buy: $49 at Stanley's Wet Goods

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Tagged: Domestique, piedmont