The Massa Effect

20 Aug
2013

Some months ago I was in raptures during a meeting in Piemonte where I came face to face with a wine figure I admire greatly. He was softly spoken with gorgeous, blue-eyes. His name was Walter and he had me at ‘Ciao’.

Walter Massa

Walter Massa of Vigneti Massa

Walter Massa is the passionate and eccentric fourth generation winemaker in a family of vignerons working under the label Vigneti Massa. The vineyards are located in and around the town of Monleale near the ancient city of Tortona. Monleale has 600 residents and is so small, in fact, that Walter knows everybody’s names and all their pet dogs. The winery is located not far from his home, which he shares with his mother and the family members who regularly pop over for meals.

On the afternoon of our meeting we went into Walter’s home and sat down at the end of the long dining table to try some of his wines and have a chat. During the course of the afternoon his ‘caretaker’ Gigi turned up to introduce himself. He had to be the funniest Frenchman I have ever seen, with full side burns and wearing a pink scarf, blue overalls, an old woollen jumper and…no shoes. What a character and so well-suited to Walter with the two of them often having a boyish gasbag about the strangest of things. Gigi positioned himself next to me and drank out of a now stem-less, broken wine glass after preparing a pyramid of tiered Montebuono cheese to accompany the wines. Simple and memorable.

we learnt that Walter works with a focus on the vineyard. He believes that if you respect the land, then you only need three simple things to make great wine: the grape, common sense and time. It could seem at odds to have such a simple philosophy for such a passionate and outside-of-the-box individual. For Walter, he has no intention of being a well-known winemaker travelling the world. He would be happier to stay in Monleale with the 600 other townspeople and keep making wine. In fact, that is what he will continue to do. Lucky us.

photo 1

Walter showing us his Timorasso vineyards

photo 2

The tasting begins

photo 3

Sharing a moment with Walter and Gigi (notice the lack of shoes on Gigi)

photo 4

Mattina d’ottobre – Monleale – 1905 by Pellizza da Volpedo

Mattina d’ottobre – Monleale – 1905 by Pellizza da Volpedo

Vigneti Massa started out with vineyards back in 1879. Walter is most well known for his work with the widely planted Barbera and his resurrecting efforts with the less ubiquitous white grape, Timorasso. The estate today produces 70,000 bottles and works on the principle of minimal intervention in the winery. Whites are vinified in autoclaves (pressure tanks) while the reds in concrete tanks. The whites are macerated on skins prior to fermentation in the concrete tanks. Whites do not have sulphites added until the very end with minimal levels achieved.

WINES ON TASTING

TIMORASSO

Vigneti Massa Timorasso ‘Derthona’ 2010: yellow flowers, egg yolk richness, rockmelon, slithered almonds, beautiful mineral presence, slippery texture, long flavour.

Vigneti Massa Timorasso ‘Derthona’ 2009: Full texture, yellow peach, twist of mandarin peel, crushed almonds, delicate acidity, egg yolk richness. Very white burgundy-esque with gentler acidity and round flavour.

Vigneti Massa Timorasso ‘Sterpi’ 2010: ripe yellow tropical fruits, more almond sensations, spices, egg yolk, 14.5% alc, full structure, concentrated mineral, only stainless steel, one year on lees, golden apple, long flavour. Soft texture. Very balanced. Excellent wine.

BARBERA – “the lady of acidity”, Walter Massa

Vigneti Massa Barbera ‘Sentieri’ 2011: Sentieri is a blend of vines. Flavours of bloody plum, iron, juicy mouthwatering acidity, warm fruit, delicious, very colourful. 14% alc., No stalks.

Vigneti Massa Barbera ‘Monleale’ 2002: Viney, soft, fresh acidity, dried fruit character, aged in old barriques for 22 months.

Vigneti Massa Barbera ‘Monleale’ 2005: Wild black and red berries, savoury finish. Fine tannins, a bit of volatile acidity as this particular bottle was open for two days.

Vigneti Massa Barbera ‘Monleale’ 2003: Lifted wild dried berries, 14.5% alc, fresh finish of vanilla and dried red berries.

Vigneti Massa Barbera ‘Monleale’ 2000: Cocoa, bloody iron fist, amazing acidity, young with, tobacco character, leather, dried red fruit flavours. Impressive.

Vigneti Massa Bigolla 2001: Planted in 1975. Wild berries, black berries, silty tannins, velvet, saucey, soft texture, long, spice, tobacco.

EXTRA TEXT

The following excerpt was taking from Andrea Zanfi’s ‘Piemonte…noblewoman of wine’ of an interview taken with Walter in 2005:

I’m happy that you’ve come to see me, that you can see where I live and what I do. But I’m especially pleased that you’ve had the chance to observe the environment and winegrowing situation in Monleale which, among other things, is representative of winegrowing in the Tortona area. What you see is no longer the environment I was raised in, and I can assure you that it’s very different today from what it was when I was a boy. When the school vacation began I used to get onto a tractor in June, get off it in September and go back to school. I didn’t like the repetitive work and I remember that as soon as I could I escaped to my uncle Giuseppe’s cellar. By his side I approached the pure and simple roots of an enology whose raison d’être was based on a bunch of grapes, on its ability to communicate its biodiversity and on the quality of the grapes delivered to the cellar where they silently became wine and transmitted culture. Those were tough years during which, apart from the physical sacrifices, I found it hard to meekly accept the state of things burdening that agriculture. I recall that the main source of income on my father’s farm was a peach orchard, and the work it required, made up of dedication and stoicism, was poorly repaid by the market. It was in those years that I came to be convinced that in a not too distant future there would be two distinct kinds of farming: one based on self-survival and the other oriented towards the pleasure of promoting your own know-how. So after enology school (which I was almost forced to attend to satisfy the ambitions of a father who wanted me to become a white collar worker and not dirty my hands like him) I completely revolutionized the family farm, transforming it and giving it a predominantly winegrowing direction rather than the mixed farming we had done previously. At first this stubborn desire of mine to return to the land and try to chance the course of events scared my family and led to dissent, with considerable generational disagreements. I had moment of great tension with my father, Augusto, but was unconditionally back up by a marvelous mother. You can have no idea of what happened when I started thinning-out the vines: in the village they started calling me crazy and there was no lack of comments from people, my father included, who never missed the chance to call me a daydreamer. Just think, one day a woman even came and asked me to delay the green harvest because she wanted to harvest and press the grapes herself. Those were the early years of ‘reasoned’ agriculture and people were starting to talk about quality, place of origin, typicality and environment-compatible production. I instinctively felt the moment had arrived to give myself a strong identity that would create a clear distinction between myself and other Piedmontese. That’s when my passion for the autochthonous began which led me to the rediscovery of lost vine species. But I soon grasped that within the cultural limitations of my territory I would find difficulty in pursuing, with my obstinate search for absolute quality, the aim of involving the whole winegrowing sector of the zone. I would run the risk of being on my own. And that’s how it turned out, but in spite of everything I never lost faith and I carried on along my own road. I now run one of the few winegrowing estates in the Alessandria area that is recognized by restaurants throughout Italy. I must acknowledge that I was greatly helped in my work by having the support of a healthy, united family: an estate-family who, after the early disagreements, back me up, collaborating actively, planting the new vineyards with me and helping me buy avant-garde equipment for the vineyards and cellars.

Come on, I want to take you around and show you my vineyards, which are worth more than anything to me. Look, the one opposite you still has the old vertical cultivation system, a memory of when it was worked by oxen going up and down the slopes. We planted the one on your right just ten days ago with 6000 Croatina vines, while those others are Moscato and Barbera. The one opposite, in the form of an inverted T – you can’t see it well because it’s covered by the tree – is all Timorasso, a vine species that won the heart of my journalist friend Beppe Zerbino, who died recently. He never missed a chance to sing its praises. In his honor I called the vineyard Vigna del Gattopardo (Leopard Vineyard). There behind, where you see the electric cables, there are other vineyards, including the Costa del Vento and La Cerreta. I know them all, they’re my silent companions, where I hide away, almost always tranquil but also angry now and then. In the beginning I made a few experiments, trying to identify the best course to take for success in producing a wine capable of expressing its own terroir. I realized that the more I manage to make it speak its own language, perfecting the vine species and deepending my relationship with it, the more I become an interpreter of this land, feeling proud to present it in various showcases worldwide and feeling self-esteem, on these occasions, in being its spokesman. I prefer to be honest and play the cards nature has dealt me, distinguishing myself with Barbera, with a dignified Croatina and a good Timorasso rather than getting into an enological itinerary that would ead me onto territory outside my jurisdiction. I’ve long been convinced that people want authenticity and identity, not stereotyped products. And I can assure you that in the long run my choice of working with autochthonous vine species has repaid me, through appreciation of my wines, for the sacrifices I made.

Well, our little tour is over and think you’ve seen everything. I don’t have many things, but I got here under my own steam and with my own ideas. Nothing counts for more in my opinion. I tried with dignity to give meaning to the sacrifices made by my ‘old folks’, to whom I address a humble ‘thank you’.

WALTER ON TIMORASSO

“I grow and vinify timorasso since the ‘80s. I feel that also for this variety the time has come to make some considerations, as a wine producer who strongly believed in its great potential. I love remembering the discussions made with colleagues, enthusiasts, researchers, old farmers, restaurant owners, wine bar owners, and journalists about the sense and worth of devoting one’s energies to an almost unknown wine grape, both from the oenological and the market point of view, in a historical moment when Piedmont oenological ‘reality’ was reaching its right dimension also with high quality white wines. This thanks to the international success of ‘cortese’ (mainly the Gavi one), to the strong presence of Arneis at national level and to some wine producers making their name in distinguished markets with white wines obtained from chardonnay, riesling and sauvignon blanc. I believed in timorasso because this vine variety, belonging since time immemorial to the culture of my land, “probably” never had a large spread since in the highly productive areas preference was given to black wine grapes (especially to barbera) and, in addition, the historical moment of white wines coincided with the exodus from the countryside in high Curone, Grue and Ossona valleys, the natural places for the cultivation and production of timorasso. In the ‘70s, local agricultural holdings present on the market, needing to increase the offer of white wines, decided to rely on cortese vine variety that, by comparison with timorasso, guarantees a higher yield per vine, less growing needs and easily available rooted cuttings. Encouraged by these considerations and by the support of the many on timorasso potentials, in the second half of the ‘80s I decided to radically change the production orientation of my agricultural holding, betting on arrange that was highly representative of my hills and of my vineyard area. I believed that having the possibility of taking advantage of an autochthonous vine variety, to produce a white wine of great personality and placing it on a market that was more and more influenced by the approved products, could be of great help for the collaboration with those ‘taste professionals’ whose main objectives are quality, identity and authenticity. The first harvest of timorasso, vinified in purity, goes back to 1987; since then, heterogeneous harvests put this vine variety potentials to the test. We constantly got very interesting results: with the exception of 1989, when grapes were damaged by hail, timorasso grapes have always passed the test. Quality suffered from inexperience in the vinification and handling of this vine variety. 1989 1991 and 1994 harvests, in fact, didn’t satisfy me at all, while the following harvests were no doubt of excellent quality, repaying me back for my troubles. 1995 harvest clearly showed that timorasso wine gives its best a few years after vinification, and I therefore decided to place “Costa del vento” on the market 18 months after harvest.

During these years, luckily, other wine producers started believing in timorasso potential and today it is therefore possible to make comparative tasting with other wines obtained from timorasso grapes.”

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