“‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings,” wrote Led Zeppelin in their famous song, Stairway to Heaven, and this is true in all languages. The Italian word contadino translates as peasant and in the 70s and 80s to label a person as such would have been to insult them. The country was industrialising rapidly, people were leaving the land in areas like Valpolicella and moving en masse to the cities where there was well-paid employment and modern housing. However, with the growth of the Slow Food Movement and 0 km markets, Italians have come to reject the pejorative aspects of the term and to glory in the idea of working in and with the land.
However, this was not the case in 1983 when a young Marinella Camerani decided she no longer wanted a life in Verona, the city of her birth, and moved to the farmhouse and five hectares that make up the heart of the winery she has built. To find out what has changed in the ensuing nearly 40 years, Vinnie and I went into the hills north of Verona to find Corte Sant’Alda. The winery is in a valley near the village of Mezzane di Sotto. Before you go into the winery, take a moment to turn around and enjoy the vista laid out before you of the valley opening out onto the vastness of the plain of the river Po. The contrast with the human scale of the valley left Vinnie and I in philosophical mood.
Away from the blistering summer heat, we sat down with Marinella, the founder and owner of the winery and, by any measure, she is a remarkable woman. When she made the then deeply unfashionable decision to leave the city for the rural life, her husband did not want to join her and so there was a parting of the ways, for this is a determined lady.
Over the years the property has grown and there are now 19 hectares of vineyards producing around 100,000 bottles of wine per year. Marinella can measure her life in the family and business she has built here and her devotion to wine and attention to detail. The rambling farmhouse that she moved to was a semi-derelict ruin, but it is now both her home and her winery. There you can see the massive french oak tini that are used for fermenting the wines and from there, descending into an old Roman cellar, you will find the oldest of the botti used to mature the wines. But these are just the physical manifestations of a place where she has raised three daughters and lives with her partner, Cesare.
These fermentation vats and the barrels used to produce and mature the wine have a story to tell in themselves, The choice of French rather than Slovenian oak for the fermentation vessels and the rich colour of the cherry wood used for some of the barrels speak of a woman who is prepared to experiment and innovate. This is reinforced by the terracotta amphora that she is currently using to ferment her rosé wine, although Marinella is not impressed with the decoration that the maker has chosen to add to the exterior. “It belongs in a Tuscan garden,” is her disparaging comment. Outside is another example of this restlessness in the shape of the conical cement fermentation vessels she uses to produce her orange wine called Inti. But the heart of this business are the traditional wines of this area and to understand the full story of Valpolicella wines read ‘Valpolicellas – Meet the Family’.
In the cool of the tasting room, we settled down to sampling three of Marinella’s wines. We started with a 2019 Valpolicella called Ca’ Fiui. This is a blend of 40% Corvina, 40% Corvinone and 15% Rondinella, a very traditional blend. After fermentation, the wine remains in the big French oak vessels for between 6 and 12 months to allow it to develop body and structure. The perfume is of cherries with a hint of cinnamon and pepper and on the palate it is dry and velvety with cherries and nicely balanced acidity and salinity – pair it with pasta or grilled meat.
Next we tried Campi Magri, a Valpolicella Ripasso. This means it has been fermented with the lees left from Amarone before being matured for two years in botti of cherry wood. The result is, as you would expect, more complex with a deep ruby colour and a bouquet with pepper, tobacco and liquorice and in the mouth it is dry with acidity but it also has a tingle on the tongue which is very pleasant. Pair it with roast red meats, ragu or a semi-mature cheese.
Finally, we sampled a 2013 Amarone. It was sensational, an intense ruby colour, with a complex bouquet including notes of liquorice, coffee and dark chocolate. The name means the big bitter one and it lived up to its name, exploding in the mouth. Full-bodied and beautifully balanced, it is a great wine and a fitting tribute to Marinella. Corte Sant’Alda is indeed a touch of heaven in the hills of northern Italy.More about this vineyard