Stella di Campalto is a steel magnolia possessing both charm and grit. Her soft-spoken elegance belies the determination and vision she needed to found an organic winery in 1995 and run it by herself without experience or training. For the first three years, still in her twenties, she lived with her two girls, three and five, in a house with straw mattresses and without central heating, television, washing machine, etc..
Stella’s wines, like her, have unique personalities and are deeply tied to the land, which she and her then-husband received from his family as their wedding gift in 1992. It was 33 acres with olive trees and a house (no vineyards), overgrown and abandoned since the 1930s.
The land was in that remote corner of Tuscany near the Monte Amiata, not considered very desirable at that time. Her in-laws had purchased it as part of a 160 acre estate with 24 houses for only 50,000 euro. It was certainly out of the way for a city girl. Stella had been born in Rome, had lived in Prague and was in Milan with her husband.
A few years later, things changed when Stella’s Florentine aunt did a palm reading and convinced Stella to apply for an EU grant to plant vineyards on the land. As crazy as the whole thing seemed, Stella took the train from Milan with the paperwork to meet her aunt and drive to the provincial office in Siena. On the way, they got lost and happened to ask directions from a man walking hear the highway, who turned out to be the EU official, who had come to distribute the grants. He took them to the office, and Stella eventually was one of only three farmers in Tuscany to get financing for a vineyard.
Then a teetotaler with toddlers, she moved to Montalcino thinking it would just be for the summer but ended up staying three years in the rustic house lent to her by friends of her mother. “They were the best years,” she told me, “sitting in front of the fire in that house.” She got organic certification in 1995, finished planting four hectares vines in 1998 and did her first harvest in 2001. By 2002, she had started using biodynamic methods and by 2005, she was certified. The vineyards are ideally situated, facing south and west toward the sea above the Ombrone River.
Tucked under the town of Castelnuovo dell’Abate…
They are just over the hill from the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, which was probably built by Charlemagne in 813. Stella considers one of her land’s most important characteristics to be the 12 types of soil (quartz, limestone, sand, volcanic black earth, etc.) that change dramatically across her five vineyards as she explains in this video:
Stella plants 25 different types of grains among the vines, rotating them to maintain vitality in the soil. She uses the traditional 500 and 501 biodynamic treatments as well as copper and sulphur. She doesn’t cut the tops of the vines, allowing them to find their own equilibrium.
She keeps bees near the cellar..
And horses that she rides for pleasure although maybe one day, she will experiment with plowing.
She built a cellar that disappears among the olive trees into the hillside with three levels.
The grapes come in at the top level, are sorted by hand and move down by gravity to the next level where they are pressed in this old-fashioned hand press.
Spontaneous fermentation with native yeasts occurs in large wooden vats, tini, with each vineyard “cru” kept separate.
Then, the wine, still separated by vineyard, goes into barrels for aging.
Until 2004, Stella made only Rosso di Montalcino, establishing her reputation for making high quality wine that was recognizable: “identity” wine with real personality. She often keeps both her Rosso and Brunello in the cellar beyond the amount of time required by the DOCG until she finds that it’s ready.
At that point, she chooses among the crus and mixes the ones that seem right for each wine. “I invite some close friends over, and we taste,” she told me. “It’s a little like matchmaking, thinking about who would make a good couple. The obvious choice is not always the best one.”
Stella’s vintages are carefully stashed in the cellar, and she talks about them as if they were characters in a novel.
We tasted her Brunello di Montalcino Reserve 2008 and 2009.
“The 2008 is like an old man from the country, a sage with wisdom to share,” she said. “The 2009 is a brash New Yorker, still young and egotistical. They can’t yet sit at the table together.”
Even though it’s true that each wine has distinctive character, the common thread is authenticity and elegance. Their bright ruby red color and complex but delicate aromas and flavors resemble Burgundy wines more than Bordeaux. They have nothing in common with the dense, dark, fruity, oaky wines that a lot of Brunello wineries began making in the nineties and that prompted the Brunello scandal in 2008.
In 2009, Stella courageously left the 250-member Brunello Consortium with friends and colleagues Francesco Leanza of Podere Salicutti and Caroline Politzer and Jan Hendrik Erbach of Pian Dell’Orino. They formed Sangiovese Per Amico as an alternative to the Consortium and began working together to collect data and do scientific research that will enable them to make true terroir wines with organic/biodynamic viticulture and natural methods in the cellar.
Even though organic/biodynamic methods are the foundation of what Stella does and her wine fully meets any definition of “natural”, she wants it to be recognized first as delicious wine with a unique identity from its terroir. She told me that her greatest satisfaction is going to a wine fair or tasting where her wines are next to “classic”, conventional wines.
“I really like it when people taste my wine and get curious,” she told me. “They can tell that the wine is different. And it is. Because it is made in a totally different way.”