It was the wolf that clinched it. I knew that my surroundings were important, significant, historical and mystical, for I was in a setting that was more than a thousand years old yet continuously used and by one family for more than 800 of those years.
It was November 1999 and I was back in Italy to deliver another paper on wine at the Renato Ratti Wine Symposium, Verona. Amongst those attending was Sandro Boscaini, patron of prestige Verona wine estate MASI. We knew each other of old and this second invitation to the symposium was due to his encouragement and recommendation. But at this visit, during a few free days after the presentation, Sandro suggested that I come with him to visit one of his working partners at a vineyard site that is recognised as being at the very roots of historic Valpolicella, its vine growing tradition, winemaking methods and its very civilisation. This truly ancient property is in Gargagnago, the estate is the Casal dei Ronchi.
During my visit, with a quiet moment, I sat in the central piazza of the property La Foresteria, (a place that we have returned to a number of times), with a glass of fine spumante quietly contemplating my amazing surroundings, to find that I wasn’t alone. A paw of very large proportions, twice the size of my hand, had landed on my knee. I turned to my right and then gazed upwards to see a huge dog, sort of part long haired Alsation and part Husky on steroids. I looked at it; it looked at me; I grinned; it didn’t.
The dog was an Italian wolf-hound, an Appenine wolf-hound, the only known cross bred member of the wolf family that is, or can be, semi domesticated. Not knowing if I should move or even twitch, I was rescued by its owner who assured me that this ‘dog’ was reasonably friendly, always remembering its heritage, and so it proved. The dog certainly suited the estate, the owner of which was Count Pieralvise Serego Alighieri, direct descendant of the poet Dante Alighieri. His family have owned the estate for more than 21 generations, producing wine under the family name Serego Alighieri.
In 1302 Dante was exiled from the mighty Tuscan city of Florence initially for two years, then to perpetual exile. He was threatened with burning at the stake if he returned to Florence; he then went to live in Verona in the north eastern province of Veneto. His sentence to exile was eventually rescinded by Florence City Council – in 2008. The wine estate of Poderi del Bello Ovile in Tuscany represents the symbolic return of the Alighieri family to Tuscany. This estate is in Cinigiano on the border with Montalcino where the Count Serego Alighieri now makes a red Tuscan wine, Poderi del Bello Ovile. The name of the estate and the wine refers to a verse written by Dante in which the exiled poet dreams of returning to his native Tuscany, the bello ovile or “fine sheepfold”; the return of the prodigal son, so to speak.
Dante’s second son Pietro Alighieri purchased the Casal dei Ronchi estate and the Villa Foresteria in Gargagnago, in April 1353. It was at the villa that Dante wrote part of his “Divine Comedy” and where his descendants still live to this day.
The noble Possessioni Serego Alighieri forms Valpolicella’s oldest and most traditional estate. Since the purchase of the estate in 1353 winemaking has been a continuous tradition, using methods laid down by the Romans but with continuing development and experimentation.
In Roman times, wines from this vineyard and area were regularly transported to Rome in clay amphorae. All wine would arrive at the Porta Vinaria, the wine trade gate. Today there is, near the river Tiber, a hill named Monte Testaccio; it is 115 feet high and made up of nothing but broken amphorae from the downstream wine gate.
The Villa Foresteria is the headquarters of a vast and flourishing agricultural and oenological enterprise managed in collaboration with MASI Agricola who have supplied modern technical expertise and an international distribution channel for the unique Serego Alighieri wines and products. The estate of Serego Alighieri produces wine, conserves, honey, grappa (brandy distilled from pomace, the residue of pressing), olive oil, balsamic seasonings and locally grown rice; MASI handles the technical supervision of all products from Serego Aligheri and distributes the products throughout the world.
The Vajo Armaron, Amarone Serego Alighieri, is a wine that harks back to ancient times in Verona’s viticultural history. The vineyards are in the district of San Ambrogio di Valpolicella; Vajo means “little valley”. The grapes used are traditional, being Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. (also used, depending on how the vintage has progressed, may be Dindarella, Rossignola and Negrara but only to an additional 10%). During research carried out by MASI Agricola, it was determined that this vineyard was the original site for the production of Amarone; the vineyard name Armaron contributing to the eventual name of the wine Amarone.
The harvesting of the grapes in late September for the Vajo Armaron Amarone is done by master pickers who select only those clusters of grapes they consider to be the best. The clusters are picked from the vine and laid gently in small boxes so that they are not bruised and then transported to the drying sheds. In the drying sheds the clusters are examined carefully and any grapes that are bruised or poor are removed with scissors. The clusters are placed on the drying racks on slatted platforms; the sheds are windowless, only with large openings to allow free flow of air for drying the grapes which stay on the racks until mid January. The drying effect lessens the water content by about 40%, enhances flavour, concentrates sugar, and maybe encourages a little botrytis (“noble rot” as favoured in Sauternes).
In mid January the grapes are given a light pressing and the grape stems removed. This first gentle pipare or simmering fermentation takes about 40 days at a low natural temperature. The wine is now a thick, sweet and strongly fragrant liquid with bright colour and is transferred into large barrels where it remains for 4 to 5 years undergoing a second alcoholic fermentation to use up residual sugars. After filtration, the aged wine is them bottled and allowed to continue its refinement and ageing for a year or so.
Serego Alighiere use French oak casks of 225 litre capacity, but also use smaller cariteli, casks of cherry wood, to give another dimension to the wine. Some wines will have further cask age in larger barrels if it is deemed necessary. The alcohol content will be quite high, from 14 % – 16%, the strength of a modern Sherry. The drinking temperature is recommended at 20C and the wine is ideally consumed at the end of the meal being a vino di meditazione; a vino di contemplazione or a vino di conversazione. With food, it is suggested that substantial meat dishes, game, rich cheeses and fruit might go well; otherwise it’s a wine not so much to go with food but to drink instead of.
The ancient appassimento styles of Amarone and Ripasso from the north central Italian region of Veneto are amongst the very best of the world’s wines. These wines are of huge dimension, unique style and construction, strong and long lived.
MASI are renowned for their experimental winery associated with the University of Verona. Where the MASI winemakers excel is in progressively developing their basic wine styles into something exceptional. Recioto, Amarone and Ripasso are some of the world’s most profound wines, with huge structure, complexity, Christmas-pudding richness, a length of palate that goes on forever yet never aggressive, harsh, rough whatever the age.
Barrel ageing of Amarone takes 3 – 5 years, depending on vintage, to allow for the development of complex aromas and flavours. Use of large and older casks is preferred to prevent the pick up of strong oak and wood character that could harm the flavour, however some producers are turning to small oak casks for better, more intense colour and richer flavour particularly for the Ripasso styles.
Campofiorin, Ripasso. The concept of Ripasso is as old as winemaking itself. It is pre-Roman and, with time, the method was lost. Italian wine historian, Nino Franceschetti, while rummaging through old manuscripts, rediscovered the technique resulting in the amarone/reciotto process. CampoFiorin is a single vineyard where the grapes are harvested, crushed and fermented, resulting in an ultra fine single vineyard (“cru”) of Valpolicella Classico. In the winery, wine destined to be either Recioto or Amarone is racked (drawn off) from the fermenting barrels in the last days of February; the wine soaked dregs/lees/sediments/vinacce remain in the barrels.
The Valpolicella Classico wine from the vineyard of CampoFiorin of the current vintage is poured into these casks and the Valpolicella undergoes a second alcoholic fermentation which increases the alcoholic content by about two degrees and gives the wine more structure, tannin and aroma. The wine is transferred to barrels for three to four years of aging and is then bottle aged for an additional six months or more. Campofiorin has the best qualities of Valpolicella and Amarone. It retains lightness and fruitiness while acquiring some of the strength of Amarone. It will have a long life; it can be aged for up to 25 years. And the Ripasso system is achieved at little extra cost, other than that of time.
Costasera Amarone Classico. This is one of the fine MASI family of Amarone reds, made from hand selected and shed dried grapes, fermented and matured over a long period of time. Grapes are grown in vineyard sites overlooking Lake Garda. Alcohol is 15% -16%. This is a wine where written words can never do it justice. At a recent dinner, the assembled diners were reduced to silence, almost to tears for some of them who had never before experience the powerful richness and astonishing depth of fruit that a premium quality Amarone can deliver. At 5 years of age, it was at the beginning of its long life improving with time and good cellarage. A wine that will provide stiff competition for any other wine of comparative richness and quality from anywhere else in the world, wines that would cost ten, twenty times more than the Costasera.
The relationship between MASI and Serego Alighieri is a classic of symbiosis; the living together of two different yet related organisations to their mutual benefit, an arrangement not common in the wine producing world. The ancient and traditional estate of Serego Alighieri needed and continually needs careful management which, as an independent organisation, was becoming more and more difficult without external help and the estate was faced with the possibility of losing some of it’s rare and valuable land, that of growing the olives being most significant.
In the classico zone of Valpolicella it is was normal that every grape grower produced a small quantity of olive oil for domestic use; the holdings in Valpolicella of Serego Alighieri are exceptions where there is a sufficient olive harvest to support a small but limited commercial enterprise. The working relationship now established with MASI has secured and preserved the production for the future.
The oil has a brilliant green-gold colour, a delicate aroma of the fresh olives with a light nutty palate and delicate flavour which lends itself ideally to bruschette, toasted home made bread flavoured with garlic, salt and olive oil. Lovely.