MARINELLA CAMERANI AND THE WINES OF CORTE SANT’ALDA
Corte Sant’Alda is a relatively new winery in Italy’s Veneto region that has within its young life risen to the top ranks of Valpolicella and Amarone producers.
The winery dates back to 1985 when its owner, Marinella Camerani, decided it was time to change her life style and moved to her family’s country house near the hamlet of Mezzane de Sotto northeast of Verona. She started to farm and otherwise make a living off the land. While the property included a small vineyard, it had not been maintained or been utilized for any serious winemaking.
After cleaning-up and renovating the farm house with the help of her family, Marinella set about restoring and replanting the vineyards. She eventually tried her hand at making wines from the vineyard’s grapes. But without any formal winemaking experience her initial wine-making initiatives were uneven. Good perhaps but not good enough.
Nothing if not relentless in her pursuit of perfection, Marinella subsequently traveled to prime winemaking regions in Italy and elsewhere in Europe to observe winemaking practices and consult with winemakers. She also read extensively about wine-making and sought advice from veteran wine consultants.
She supplemented what she read and learned with some of her own insightful initiatives. She converted her vineyards to the guyot vine training system which enhances the quality of grapes through better sun exposure and reduced potential for grapevine diseases. She also experimented with different wine fermentation containers and protocols.
One of Marinella’s innovative approaches involved her adoption of soil survey and classification methods so as to better understand the complex soil relationships between and among her vineyards. While this technique was not original it was unusal for a small-scale producer like Corte Sant’Alda to go through the time and expense to implement,
She was also an early advocate of organic farming principles and all the estate’s vineyards are organically farmed. Corte Sant’Alda is also certified biodynamic and is one of only a few wineries in the area that can carry the Demeter-certification logo on its wine bottles. Her basic approach to making wines centers on minimizing intervention in the wine-making process and simply letting the wines speak for themselves.
And the rest is history as they say. Today her Valpolicella and Amarone wines are celebrated as some of the best by wine critics and rating organizations alike.
The estate has also grown in the process. From an initial 12 acres, Corte Sant’Alda has expanded to 100 acres today, of which approximately 50 acres are allocated to vineyards. But with total annual production of 84,000 bottles it is still a relatively small boutique winery by Veneto standards.
The primary grape varieties grown on the estate are Corvina, Corvina Grosso and Rondinella. They are used in the production of six red wines: a Valpolicella, a Valpolicella Superiore, a Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore, a Recioto and two Amarones. The estate has also started producing a white wine, a Soave made with grapes from a small vineyard owned by Corte Sant’Alda in the Soave DOC zone.
Marinella brings a great passion to the process of interpreting the best expressions of these celebrated wines. Corte Sant’Alda wines are prized for their extraordinary balance, concentration and complexity.
In late January, I had the opportunity to meet with Marinella at Corte Sant’Alda. I toured the vineyards and winery and also sampled the estate’s line-up of wines. The next day I met-up with Marinella again for an interview during the ANTEPRIMA AMARONE meetings in Verona.
The following is a lightly-edited transcript of the interview which in turn is followed by a review of the wines previously tasted at the winery.
WineWordsWisdom (WWW): Before we start I want to say how very pleased I am that you could take time to meet with me in what I know is a very busy schedule. I am especially pleased because I am a big fan of your wines.
By way of introduction, maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself and how your winery, Corte Sant’Alda, got its start.
Marinella Camarani (MC): First I should say that I am not a winemaker in the sense that I grew up in a winemaking family. I am the first in my family to make wine. I originally was an accountant and worked for my father in an industrial business.
But being the free spirit that I am I found it impossible to work in an office and as an accountant no less. It was not the life I wanted and I only worked there for 5 or 6 years.
WWW: How did you end up at a winery making your own wines?
MC: My father bought the current winery property in 1976 and it included a very old farm house. This happened while I was working in my father’s office and decided that this was the time to make a dramatic change. I quit work, moved there, and with the help of my family fixed the place up and started farming.
The property also included a small unproductive vineyard and eventually I decided to try my hand at making wines. Corte Sant’Alda really got its start as a winery in 1986 when I produced my first wines for sale.
The original property was very small, only 5 hectares (note – a hectare is roughly equal to 2-1/2 acres). Today I have about 40 hectares of which 20 are vineyards.
I have 600 olive trees and also cherry and walnut trees as well as pigs, cows and other farm animals. It is a real farm – but primarily a wine producing farm. For biodynamic reasons it is important to have animals around because the animals work in harmony with nature and the grape vines. This is important because you have a larger focus than just the wines. We grow our own vegetables and raise our own meat.
I work with my husband who is originally from Peru. I have three daughters. My middle daughter, Frederica, works with me and takes care of many of the office and administrative responsibilities. Others that work here include Matteo and Paolo and I rely heavily on them. Everyone that works here is familiar with the entire operation and can do different things on any given day.
If we had an organization chart for Corte Sant’Alda, it would indicate a horizontal job chart and organization.
When I hire people I try to find people smarter than I am. If smarter than me I am sure to learn something from them.
WWW: Then how and when did you actually learn to make wines?
MC: I learned primarily by doing. I read books, tasted a lot of wines and I experimented and learned from some mistakes along the way. I also traveled to different wine-producing areas to learn how to make wines. I also drew on the skills of winemakers I knew – not just anybody but the most intelligent and dedicated ones.
I visited the Piedmont region and France’s Bordeaux region. I tasted Barolo, Bordeaux and other wines, decided which ones I liked best and studied how they are made.
When I visited the Bordeaux region I noticed wines fermenting in barrels. I decided to use that technique and was the first one to do so here.
I also planted vines using the Guyot technique and was the first one in this region to do so.
My property has been farmed organically for years and is now also Demeter-certified biodynamic. I never use pesticides or chemicals and have never added water to vineyards – only natural rainfall. Fermentation of the wines starts naturally – I never add yeasts.
I’m not in this business just for the money. I want to make better wines, wines that I’m proud of and that appeal to people.
WWW: Was there any winemaker that especially inspired you during your learning process?
MC: It would have to be Giuseppe Quintarelli. He was my model because he put his heart and soul into crafting some of the world’s most interesting and expensive wines.
WWW: I would like to have your thoughts on the recently-released 2011 vintage for Amarone.
MC: I listened to the presentations this morning and the general opinion is that the 2011 vintage is very good to excellent. While that may be true in general there will be some variations between different parts of the Valpolicella area.
For example, the weather in 2011 was not that wonderful at my place. August was especially difficult because there was no rain and we don’t otherwise water the vines. 2011 will certainly be a good year but whether it is “very good” or “excellent” remains to be seen. In my case, the 2011 wines should be more elegant that those of 2010 but probably not as big.
I don’t know when my 2011 Amarone wines will be ready for sale. I will just have to wait and see how they develop.
WWW: What exactly is it about Amarone wines that people find so appealing?
MC: There are two different Amarone perspectives. Some people like the modern style of Amarone – big body, approachable, easy to drink and a touch of sweetness. Other people want real Amarone and prefer Amarones made in the traditional style – dry, elegant, and textured but not necessarily big-bodied. But these require more patience because they will take longer to reach prime maturity. So there are different styles for different preferences.
WWW: What is involved in producing a really good Amarone? In other words, what differentiates a well-made Amarone from an ordinary one?
MC: Time, patience and attention to detail. The grapes have to be healthy and at their optimum ripeness with no green grapes. There simply is no hurrying the process.The grapes have to be hand-selected with several passes made in the vineyard.
The grapes should be treated with care. They should also be dried naturally during theappassimento process – no artificial drying.
If the grapes are good, healthy and natural the Amarone will be good. I didn’t just decide to make a good wine, rather the wine decided to make me good.
WWW: In 2009 Gambero Rosso honored you its prestigious “Grower of the Year” award. What were your thoughts when you learned this? Was it a surprise or more one of “well, it’s about time”?
MC: Yes, I have to admit I was surprised. I was really surprised and happy because I am a grower, one that has used organic and now biodynamic-certified viticultural practices. This award from Gambero Rosso gave recognition to my initiatives in this regard.
WWW: Valpolicella went through a difficult period several decades ago when production increased and quality declined. Quality has improved markedly since then and especially over the last decade. What brought this about and why are they so much better today?
MC: First, there has been a generational shift – there are newer people making wine today, often younger, with different perspectives and skills. They are more willing to experiment and try new things.
Second, they are also better trained – they studied winemaking in technical schools and they’ve spent time working in the vineyards. They know the technical aspects of winemaking.
There is also more competition for our wines today from newer wine areas like South America, and Australia. This increased competition has forced us to improve and make better quality wines if we want to stay competitive.
Finally, I think the wine-consuming public today is more knowledgeable, more focused on quality and generally more selective than in the past.
WWW: What non-Corte Sant’Alda wines do you keep in your personal cellar? What wines might people be surprised to find in your cellar?
MC: I make mainly red wines so when I want to relax I drink Champagne, something entirely different than what I produce. I enjoy them because I don’t have to analyze them as competitors. I usually drink Champagnes from small producers
I love old Barolos made in the traditional way, especially those by Mascarello and Elvio Cogno.
I also love the wines produced by Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar in Lebanon. They are not to everybody’s liking but I think they are wonderful and are among my favorites.
WWW: Are there any unusual or unpredictable Amarone and food pairings you think we should try?
MC: I personally love Amarone with simple foods and don’t believe they should be reserved for only big, heavy or “important” dishes. Amarone goes especially well with cheese, country soups and risotto. It really goes back to the tradition of where Amarone came from, a simpler time before it became so popular.
WWW: Are there any new projects or ventures on the horizon for your estate?
MC: I need a larger wine cellar because we are running out of space. But I am at that point where I want more time for myself and it’s hard to think about major new projects. I’m hoping that Federica, Matteo and others can step in and assume more of my job responsibilities.
WWW: Any plans for visiting the U.S. in the near future?
MC: Yes, probably in September. But in February I will have 12 people in the wine trade from the U.S. visit me. I have also starting to work with a new wine importer from the U.S.
WWW: Well, I hope you can make it to the U.S. It’s an important wine market and folks there need to hear more about Corte Sant’Alda.
Corte Sant’Alda, Soave DOC 2013
This single-vineyard Soave is made primarily with Garganega grapes with some Trebbiano di Soave (15 percent) and a touch of Chardonnay (5 percent) sourced from the estate’s vineyard in the Soave DOC.
Fermentation is initiated with natural yeasts and carried out in a combination of large oak casks and stainless steel tanks. The wine remains on its lees for four months and then bottled.
So many Soave wines are simply bland. This one, though, has intoxicating aromas of white fruit with a touch of citrus followed by a firm but richly textured body featuring green apple, apricot and ripe citrus fruit flavors. It has a clean, dry finish complemented with classic notes of bitter almond.
It is the perfect wine to accompany appetizers or light dinners of seafood or poultry or to simply sip by itself.
Corte Sant’Alda, Ca’Fiui Valpolicella DOC 2013
The estate’s entry-level Valpolicella is treated with as much care and attention as the estate’s other more-expensive wines. Fermentation is induced with natural yeasts in oak vats and continues for at least six months.
The result is a wine with a deep red color that has a purple tint on the edge. A little swirling of the glass launches enticing red cherry and floral aromas. It has a medium body and is well balanced with dark fruit flavors tinged with herbs and kitchen spices, mouth-watering acidity and muted tannins. It’s a lovely and elegant wine with an appealing freshness and structure that would make it a welcome guest at almost any dinner table.
Corte Sant’Alda, “Mithas” Valpolicella Superiore 2010
This cru of Valpolicella comes from the estate’s “Macie” vineyards and is produced only in the best vintages. The grapes are ultra-ripe when harvested at the end of October. Fermentation begins spontaneously and continues for 15 days in oak vats without any temperature controls. The wine is then aged in used oak barrels for 2 years before bottling.
The resulting wine is a deep violet color with clear and intense red berry aromas together with kitchen spices and a hint of oak. It is balanced, round and well-endowed with a generous medley of ripe, purple fruit and blackberry flavors that harmonize with the soft, juicy tannins. It’s plain delicious.
Corte Sant’Alda, “Campi Magri” Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore 2011
The fermentation for this Valpolicella begins spontaneously in oak vats. In February, the wine is refermented on the remains of sweet and alcoholic Amarone grape skins, the traditional vinification procedure for ripasso (or “repassed”) wines. The wine is aged in large cherry wood barrels for two years to impart additional richness.
It is a beautiful wine, smooth with plum and red and black cherry flavors intertwined with espresso, kitchen spice and cassis notes. There is good acidity, smooth texture and a hint of tannin on an elegant finish. It is an exceptionally well-made and expressive Ripasso wine.
Corte Sant’Alda, Amarone della Valpolicella 2010
As with Corte Sant’Alda’s other red wines the grapes for this Amarone are farmed organically and follow biodynamic viticultural practices. Marinella notes that “mine are the only Amarone wines certified by Demeter”.
After fermentation of the dried grapes is complete and the wine is racked, the Amarone is aged for no less than three years in oak barrels of various sizes and ages.
This is a really classy wine from start to finish. Its weighty grip is nicely balanced by its generous body, soft tannins and black currant, coffee and spice flavors. It is rich and textured without being “jammy”. It is a well-structured and seductive bottle of wine.
Amarone is traditionally served with robust dishes based on game, grilled or roasted red meats, roast lamb, pot roast and aged cheeses.
Corte Sant’Alda, Recioto della Valpolicella 2011
Corte Sant’Alda’s Recioto della Valpolicella is made with 60 percent Corvina Grossa and 40 percent Rondinella grapes. Initially, the Recioto follows the same vinification protocol as the estate’s Amarone wines i.e., hand-selected grapes are placed in small crates and stored in natural drying facilities for four months where they shrivel and lose about half of their original weight. In late February the dried grapes are gently pressed and then undergo natural, spontaneous fermentation in wood vats.
However, the vinification process differs from that for Amarone in that fermentation is suspended before all the grapes’ natural sugars are converted into alcohol so the resulting wine will have some residual sugar. Corte Sant’Alda’s Recioto ends up with 90 grams of sugar per liter and clocks in with 15 percent alcohol. Think of it as a sweet version of Amarone.
This Recioto has a dark red-purple color. It is a very concentrated and sweet wine replete with complex and captivating nutty-raisin and balsamic notes and a long, spicy, dried-fruit finish. The wine’s sweetness is natural and restrained and not syrupy or sugary.
It’s the perfect wine to accompany not-too-sweet desserts such as crumb cakes, fruit tarts and pastries in general. It also pairs well with most cheeses from hard and aged to fresh and creamy. It is best when served slightly chilled.