A distinctive white wine from Venice’s lagoon

In the shadow of the tourist hordes of Venice, Italy, a few vintners are keeping alive the tradition of viticulture in the Venetian lagoon.

Venetians often grew a few vines in their gardens during the area’s heyday, both for wine and for ornamental purposes. Monks also grew grapes for sacramental wines. But with the decline of the Venetian Republic in the 18th century, vines were mostly abandoned.

Fast forward to about 15 years ago. Gianluca Bisol, whose family is better known for producing prosecco, noticed a small garden with grapevines outside the church on Torcello, an island in Venice’s northern lagoon. He talked to the vineyard owner and was told that grapevines were traditional in the area. As Bisol did more research, he found that vines had been cultivated in Venice for about 2,500 years.

Dorona vines grow in a garden on the island of Torcello. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)
Dorona vines grow in a garden on the island of Torcello. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

Those Torcello vines were an almost-extinct white variety called dorona because of its uva d’oro (golden grapes).  As Bisol searched other islands in the lagoon, he discovered a few vines here and there, totaling fewer than 100 vines, according to Gianluca’s son, Matteo Bisol. On a nearby island, Mazzorbo, Gianluca found an abandoned monastery that had also functioned as a winery from the 1800s until the 1960s, Matteo says. With the permission of the city, the family planted a two-acre vineyard of dorona, propagated from the vines that Gianluca had found. The first harvest was in 2010.

The Venissa Estate vineyard on Mazzorbo. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)
The Venissa Estate vineyard on Mazzorbo. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

Viticulture isn’t easy in Venice. Matteo Bisol says there’s salt water about a meter below the surface of the Venissa vineyard. Flooding is a chronic occurrence in Venice, and the vineyard floods occasionally. A huge flood in 1966, Bisol says, actually wiped out most of the agriculture, including grapes, in Venice.

The Venissa Estate white is produced in tiny quantities at a winery owned by the Bisols in Padua. The 2012 vintage will be introduced to the U.S. in 2017 and will cost $189 for a specially designed half-liter bottle. I tasted the wine during a visit earlier this year. The wine, which is macerated on the skins during vinification, has a golden color and a briny minerality. It’s rich, with a slight oxidative note, but it’s still quite fresh. “When you open a bottle of Venissa, it’s the history of Venice,” Bisol says. (There’s also a merlot-based red, but I haven’t tasted it.)

The renovated property now includes a hotel and two restaurants. The historic winery has been converted into an event space. Mazzorbo is connected to the more touristy island of Burano via a bridge, so it’s easy to visit.

The Venissa estate isn’t the only vineyard in the Venice lagoon. The small vineyard on Torcello still exists. And a couple of other vintners reportedly have established small vineyards on nearby Sant’Erasmo island.

And the Venissa vineyard isn’t the Bisol family’s only unusual wine project. They are involved in an experimental vineyard, Vigna 1350, in the Dolomites of northern Italy, outside the ski town of Cortina, at an elevation of about 4,500 feet — the highest vineyard on the European continent. (That’s 1,350 meters, hence the name.)

Because the growing season is so short and the winters are so cold, winemaker/consultant Fabrizio Zardini and his partners planted some unusual, cold-hardy varieties. Many of them are crosses of more familiar grapes. Zardini says the best-performing grape so far has been something called André, a cross between Saint Laurent and blaufrankisch.

An experimental vineyard outside Cortina is the highest on the European continent. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)
An experimental vineyard outside Cortina is the highest on the European continent. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

During a visit to the vineyard, which has panoramic mountain views, Zardini poured for me a sample of a 2013 palava, made from a grape that’s a cross between traminer and muller-thurgau. The wine is floral and citrusy, with zippy grapefruit and a lot of freshness, but it also some weight.

There are plans to expand the vineyard, which is in the middle of an alpine preserve, to about 2.5 acres and produce commercial wine.

 

 

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