Audio Transcript:

Wine-makers in northern Italy's Valpolicella region are worried about a local cement factory's plans for expansion. Among the wine-makers is a direct descendant of Italy's greatest poet, Dante. The BBC's Mark Duff reports.

JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp and this is The World. Italy's Valpolicella region is famous for its red wines. They're among the highest rated in the country. The region, near the northern city of Verona, produces other things, too. There's a big cement factory there, for instance. The owners want to expand it. Among those opposed to the idea are Valpolicella's wine producers. They include a direct descendant of Italy's greatest poet, Dante. The BBC's Mark Duff sent us this report from northern Italy.

[choral singing]

MARK DUFF: The vineyards are deserted. A dusting of snow shrouds the vines and the spirit of Dante Alighieri is being invoked to do battle for the heart and soul of Valpolicella. Dante may have been here before. As he wanders through Purgatory in the second part of his masterpiece, "The Divine Comedy" he ponders the wonders of wine making. In his Inferno too, the landscape is strangely familiar, according to his direct descendant, Count Pieralvise Serego Alighieri.

PIERALVISE ALIGHIERE: He described something like big natural stone bridge that we have here on the hills. He described the same things in the Inferno and the description is very, very similar to what we have. So it will be very possible that he also walked through the lands where we are walking now together.

DUFF: For 21 generations, the Alighieri family has made fine wine here at Gargagnago, ever since the poet was exiled to Verona and his son Pietro bought this land. They still make Amarone here in the traditional way, using bamboo drying racks.

ALIGHIERI: So the grapes, they lose weight, water. The sugar becomes more concentrated, and finally, when we press the grapes, the result is juice very rich in sugar, that after the fermentation times becomes a wine very rich in alcohol. Rich but still gentle. Amarone is what we call a gentle giant. It's a wine that helps you to better understand what is going on around you. It opens your mind, I think.

DUFF: But Valpolicella is under threat. A victim of its own beauty and of unbridled development. Holiday homes and light industry are spreading through the vineyards like a virus. Surveying his estate, the count is worried.

ALIGHIERI: This land had no change for about 2,000 years. Then in the last 60 years, everything gets changed. So what Dante could say, I don't know. Maybe he doesn't recognize what is now Valpolicella.

DUFF: A short drive from Gargagnago is a very different vision of Valpolicella.

MAN 1: We are looking at the kilns that are steel pipes and inside of them the material blows while the kiln rotates and to become from marl, it becomes cement.

DUFF: The cement works here at Fumani have become symbolic of the battle for Valpolicella. Critics hate it. They play on the Dante connection, describing it as an Inferno that threatens the earthly paradise of Valpolicella.

MAN 2: Okay, grazie.

MAN 3: Prego.

GIUSEPPE FAIS: We over here see all the emission parameters and we have to look at them and check them, be sure that everything goes properly.

DUFF: Giuseppe Fais [PH] is the works technical director. In the calmer surroundings of the control room, he's keen to show off its environmentally friendly credentials.

FAIS: As you see, the [INDISCERNIBLE] is less than half of the limit, see? All parameters are well below the limits.

DUFF: So you are environmentally responsible producers here.

FAIS: Yes.

[men speaking Italian]

DUFF: Over a lunch of risotto a l'Amarone, Nimo Conchi [PH] explains why such assurances don't carry much weight with him. He's president of a local group fighting those plans for a new state of the art furnace and chimney that comes with it. For Nimo Conchi, this is a battle for the soul of Valpolicella, one that pits developers and industrialists against the environmentalists and winemakers. It's also personal. In particular, he sees the cement plant's fumes as a direct threat to the health of local children.

NIMO CONCHI: [speaking Italian] Forty years ago when they built the cement plant, there wasn't a problem, because not many people lived here. Today, there's a populated area, so people are being contaminated. So the first problem is health, especially children breathing in waste fumes. The second problem is not to make it worse. It's got to be better to reduce industry, not increase it.

ALIGHIERI: This is an old document, going back to the 23rd of April, 1353. So this was the first document proving purchase by the Alighieri family here in Gargagnago in Valpolicella.

DUFF: Back and Gargagnago, the wine flows and the count contemplates his illustrious ancestor's links to the land which he now works. Of one thing he's certain: that the poet would have approved of his fight to save Valpolicella for future generations.

ALIGHIERI: Dante's presence is very important in our family of course. We have the fortune to carry on this great name, so Dante is always behind us.

DUFF: You think he'd approve of your battle to save this landscape?

ALIGHIERI: I'm sure there is a sort of paradise that must be kept like a paradise. I'm sure that Dante is helping me in this battle.

DUFF: The post war dash for development has seen vast areas of Italy disappear under brick and concrete. Tiny areas remain unspoiled and under siege from developers, from holidaymakers and from those fleeing the hustle and bustle of city life. Valpolicella is one of them. In the process, the cement works at Fumani has become an unwitting symbol of the battle to preserve what little remains of what Italians still like to call the "bel paise," the beautiful country.

SHARP: The BBC's Mark Duff reporting from Valpolicella, Italy.