Lots of images come to mind when you think of Venice — the art, the architecture, and canals and gondolas. Vineyards? Not so much. Can’t imagine vineyards in Venice, although historians tell us that they were there — some even in the San Marco quarter — in earlier days when the city was less crowded and more concerned with self-sufficiency.
Would you be surprised if I told you that there are still vines and wines in Venice today? Not on the cluster of islands that we think of as the city of Venice proper, but out in the busy lagoon? The photo above shows the island of Burano (the island of lace-makers to distinguish it from Murano, the island of glass-makers) and just below it, connected by a short bridge, is the island of Mazzorbo and the one hectare vineyard of Venissa.
Dorona di Venezia is a grape of the Venetian lagoon. — its natural resistance to fungal diseases is a plus in this humid place. Known since the 15th century, it is a natural cross of Garganega and Bermestia Bianca (according to my copy of Wine Grapes) that is popular as a table grape because of its big sweet golden (D’oro) grapes.
You can find Dorona here and there in the Veneto (easy to mistake it for Garganega, the grape most associated with Soave) but until recently not so much in Venice and its lagoon islands, the challenges of maritime grape-growing being what they are. But Gianluca Bisol, of the famous Prosecco house, discovered a few vines on the island of Sant’Erasmo and used them to establish a Dorona vineyard on the old ScarpaVolo estate property on nearby Mazzorbo.
Golden grape, golden wine. The wine really is golden due in part to fermentation on the grape skins to give it special character. The bottles of hand-crafted glass display rich decorations of hand-beaten gold foil (thus honoring two traditional Venetian crafts). The name Venissa and a number are carefully hand-etched on each bottle.
What does it taste like? The note in Wine Grapes talks of minerality and dried peach and apricot. Only two vintages have been released so far — 2010 and 2011 — and Ian D’Agata writes in his excellent Native Wine Grapes of Italy that he prefers the freshness of the 2011. Winemakers Desiderio Bisol and Roberto Cipresso apparently pulled back from some of the extreme cellar practices after the first vintage, yielding a fresher wine, although not something that you would ever mistake for Soave!
We loved the color of the wine and were surprised by its delicate aromas. I found a certain saltiness very appealing, although maybe that was the power of suggestion since we were tasting the wine with Matteo Bisol looking out at the vineyard and the lagoon just beyond. If there really is a salty character, the wine comes by it naturally. Salt water floods the vineyards during periodic tidal surges and a good deal of effort goes into drainage. I preferred the more intense 2010, but maybe that’s to be expected of the author of a book called Extreme Wine.
Venissa has just released a red wine, Rosso Venissa, its handcrafted bottle suitably adorned by copper, not gold. It’s a blend of Merlot and Carmenere from 40-year old vines located on an island near Torcello. Sworn to secrecy, we tasted this wine prior to its official release and noted its richness, intensity and, well, salty personality.
Not everyone would have seized the opportunity that those few stray Dorona vines presented, but Gianluca and now Matteo Bisol have done so and it is interesting to see the extremes that have resulted. The vineyard is a bit rustic, for example. Not the vines but the landscape, surrounded by stone walls, cut by drainage ditches and featuring a large rambling garden where local senior citizens grow vegetables that they sell to the Venissa restaurant.
The restaurant and inn are as luxurious as the wine and present a strong contrast to the natural element that is appropriate for Venice. We dined at the restaurant and our waiter made the point that what came out of the kitchen (he pointed to the busy glass-walled show kitchen to our left) first came from the island and the lagoon to our right. This locavore idea appeared in each plate we were served, perhaps most of all in a soup of sea-snail (garusoli) and sea fennel in what tasted like the rich reduced essence of the lagoon itself. Another extreme experience.
Making a Statement
On the ferry ride back to San Marco with the full moon above us, Sue and I talked about Venissa. I was suspicious at the start that it was a platform to promote the Bisol brand, but my hypothesis didn’t hold up. It really seems to be a sincere attempt by the Bisol family to honor the history and traditions of Venice and Venetian wine.
What makes Venissa so interesting is the ambitious approach. It would be possible to draw attention to Venetian wine culture with a museum exhibition of some sort — many wineries display collections of winemaking implements, historical documents and wine and vine art. They are always interesting, but it seems to me that they usually lack the lasting impact that I see at Venissa. Why?
One factor is that Venissa is a living exhibition — the actual vineyards are right here in the lagoon, not just dots on an old map and the actual wine is in your glass not a just label on the wall. This obviously creates a more intense sensual experience. And the total project reinforces this by drawing on all the senses through the packaging, the location, the inn and restaurant and so forth.
Matteo told us that there are plans to further extend the experience through a sort of deconstructed hotel project on the neighboring island of Burano. The “hotel” would actually be a collection of rooms scattered around in various of the buildings that line the colorful canals of the little island, giving visitors an opportunity to intimately experience a different side of Venice and of course to enjoy the short stroll over the little bridge to Mazzorbo, then on through the vineyard and to Venissa itself.
Venissa is a wine, a destination and a statement, all made with impressive clarity and commitment. Congratulations to the Bisol family on this achievement.