The legend of Dante Alighieri has been rekindled recently with the release of the film “Inferno,” which shares the name of the first part of his 14th-century epic poem “Divine Comedy.”
Dante, one of the most famous Italians ever, is well known for the enduring literary work, but many do not know that there’s a winery bearing his last name that has been just as enduring.
After Dante was exiled from Tuscany in 1302 for being on the wrong side of a political takeover in Florence, the poet relocated to Verona in northern Italy, where he spent several years. Although he eventually moved on to Liguria on the west coast of Italy, his son Pietro was so smitten by the beauty of Verona and the surrounding countryside that he decided to stay.
In 1353, he bought a large estate in the Valpolicella region and 21 generations later, the estate still belongs to Dante’s direct descendents.
Wine has been produced on the estate continuously since then, but in 1973, a collaboration with Italian winemaking giant Masi Agricola took the quality of those wines, produced under the name Serego Alighieri, to a new level
Modern wines, traditional values
Masi has been producing wines in the Valpolicella region since the latter part of the 18th century, but for most of its history, the winery – like the other wineries in the region – produced only everyday jug wines.
In 1964, Sandro Boscaini joined the still-family owned Masi winery with a vision to improve the quality of the wines.
His first innovation involved Amarone, the wine made from a blend of regional grapes. In earlier days, the wines from Valpolicella were light bodied and fruity and best served young and slightly chilled. By using a process developed around 1950, in which the grapes are allowed to partially dry on open-air racks before they are pressed, these wines were transformed into rich, ageable, full-bodied wines. In this process, called appassimento, the grapes lose up to 40 percent of their weight, leaving much more concentrated juice.
However, because the juice had so much sugar, fermentation took a very long time – sometimes over a year – leading to highly oxidized wines that tasted like prunes and other dried fruits and needed decades of aging to be enjoyable. Using different kinds of yeast, Boscaini was able to speed up fermentation to four or five months, creating a less oxidized wine that could be enjoyed after only five years of aging.
This modern style of Amarone is the norm today and was Boscaini’s first big innovation.
His second was just as important. Wanting a wine that was in-between cheap Valpolicella and costly and-risky-to-produce Amarone, Boscaini invented a process whereby the leftover skins and seeds of the grapes used to make Amarone were mixed into Valpolicella wines, and then put through a secondary fermentation. The process is called ripasso and the full-bodied wines it creates are sometimes referred to as “Baby Amarones.”
Eventually, Boscaini improved the ripasso process. Instead of using skins and seeds of the dried grapes, he used grapes that had been dried about one-fourth of the time they dry for use in Amarone.
Serego Alighieri wines
Masi’s wines produced under the Serego Alighieri label were highlighted at a wine dinner at Ristorante Pappagallo on Nov. 10. On hand to discuss the wines was Masi’s Managing Director – Americas/Asia, Luc Desroches.
The dinner started with octopus carpaccio served with Serego Alighieri “Possessioni,” a white wine blend made with 75 percent of a regional grape called Garganega and 25 percent Sauvignon Blanc.
“It’s the only Sauvignon Blanc in the Verona region,” said Desroches. “You get the fresh herbaceous nose coming from the Sauvignon, and the Garganega gives roundness and structure to the wine.”
Switching over to the red wines for the next course, Poderi Bello Ovile was served with a cold herb-crusted lamb loin confit that was butter-tender.
“This wine is a bit unusual,” said Desroches. “Because of the roots of the family, we decided about 10 years ago to go back to Tuscany.”
The wine is mostly Sangiovese – Tuscany’s iconic red wine – blended with smaller amounts of two other grapes from the region.
Not only is the wine organic, it’s vegan. Many people do not realize that animal products are often used in the production of wine during the fining process where unwanted solids are removed. Egg whites, isinglass from fish and gelatins made from animal proteins are the common animal products used. Even though these substances do not remain in the wine, they have come in contact with the finished product, technically making them non-vegan.
The Serego Alighieri Poderi Bello Ovile, however, uses bentonite, a type of clay, as the fining agent, making it truly vegan.
The pairing with the lamb, which was definitely not vegan, was nonetheless stunning, and Desroches pointed out to guests that it was a great example of a kitchen adjusting its menu to fit the wine.
The next pairing was also delicious, with orecchiette pasta in duck ragu sauce and aged Pecorino cheese served with Serego Alighieri “Montepiazzo” Valpolicella Classico Superiore.
This wine is an example of a Valpolicella blend that has undergone the secondary ripasso fermentation, resulting in a rich wine with concentrated flavors.
Saving the best for the last savory dish – bacon-wrapped, oven-baked quail filled with beef and pork and topped with a foie gras sauce – was Serego Alighieri’s flagship wine, “Vaio Armaron” Amarone Classico.
“This is an exceptional bottle of wine,” Desroches said. “It was awarded the No. 8 position in the Wine Spectator (top 100 wines) last year.”
Made with 100 percent dried grapes using the appassimento process, this powerful and complex wine is aged first in oak barrels and then in cherry wood casks for a short time, giving it unique characteristics.
Finishing the dinner was a dessert made with mixed berries that had been marinated in Moscato wine and then topped with crumbled meringue. It was served with “Casal dei Ronchi” Recioto Classico, a sweet red dessert wine.
“‘Recioto means ‘the ears,’” Desroches said, explaining that the grapes used to make the wine came from the edges of the top of grape clusters, where the fruit gets the most sun and therefore has the most concentrated flavors. The appassimento process is then used to produce a concentrated dessert wine that is sweet, fruity and smooth.