Creatures from the Lagoon: The Return of Venetian Wine

For centuries the Venetian lagoon was home to a thriving native winemaking culture. But over the last century, rising tides (and fortunes) rendered winemaking all but extinct. Until now. Paul Abercrombie on Venice's viticultural revival.

Visitors to Italy know you can hardly chuck a euro without hitting a grape vine. Indeed, in a land where wine is regarded both as sacrament and daily sustenance, vineyards are everywhere—from the steepest hillsides to urban backyards scarcely bigger than postage stamps.

But only in the past handful of years has viticulture begun taking root again in one of the country’s least likely places: Venice.

Hard as it is to imagine, the Floating City once had a thriving wine industry. For centuries, vineyards grew on at least several of the lagoon’s hundred-odd islands, including Mazzorbo, Burano and Sant’Erasmo. Even today’s tourist-clogged San Marco quarter, in the heart of the city, is believed to have once nourished some of the dozen or more grape varieties grown in the lagoon.

Yet the city’s rising fortunes—and seas—curiously left its distinct winemaking culture all but extinct. As Venice grew richer and more militarily powerful over the centuries, residents felt less compelled to be self-sufficient. Plus, producing wines on islands is inherently more expensive than on the mainland, in no small part because vineyards take up lots of precious space. Throw in the threat of seawater occasionally ruining vineyards, and it’s easy to see why Venice’s maritime wine culture sputtered out. And why its return is all the more interesting.

Leading Venice’s viticultural revival are two producers: Orto di Venezia and Venissa. Venissa is the latest winemaking venture by the Bisol family, makers of renowned proseccos in the town of Valdobbiadene, about an hour from Venice by train. One recent March afternoon, Matteo Bisol met me at his vineyard on the island of Mazzorbo, a short ferry ride from the center of Venice. Here, behind short brick walls, is the oasis-like Venissa, which includes a chic six-bedroom guesthouse, restaurant and Lilliputian vineyards of the indigenous dorona grape, an ancient white variety thought to be extinct. Since Venissa’s first bottling—a golden-hued wine that’s fermented on its skins and aged for two years in stainless steel—debuted in 2010, the wine has gained a cult following.

As methodical as Matteo and his family are about caring for the grapes on this two-acre vineyard, he said the fruit’s rediscovery was accidental. On a visit to the neighboring island of Torcello more than a decade ago, Matteo’s father Gianluca climbed the church’s bell tower, the lagoon’s oldest. Lovely as the landscape below was, what really caught his eye was a tiny vineyard.

“It was the last place he thought he’d see [grape vines],” said Bisol.

A visit soon after to the woman who owned the vineyard led Gianluca and his son on a quest to research Venice’s wine history, score samples of local vines and search for suitable growing spots.

Experiments by Bisol winemaker Roberto Cipresso, Matteo and his father growing dorona in and outside the lagoon revealed that the grapes favored the local soil, a unique combination of limestone, clay and sand. Stranger still, these grapes are more resistant to traces of salt in the soil borne by wind and sea during acqua alta, as the especially high tides Venetians have lived with for centuries are called. In fact, they seem to prefer this saltier turf.

Word of mouth led them to owners of dorona vines cultivated on the island since the 15th century and local archives yielded clues about where vineyards are and used to be—as did the more modern method of surfing Google Earth to study satellite photos for telltale lines in soil indicating vestigial rows of vines. Even the seemingly less scientific approach of simply wandering around, looking for gardens and plots of land with herbs known to enjoy vine-friendly soil, helped them learn where these grapes would grow best.

Some months later, they’d bought the plot of land where Venissa now sits. They’d also procured about 80 dorona grape vines from local home gardeners and farmers on Sant’Erasmo and other islands. DNA testing confirmed the grape vines were local to the lagoon and related to garganega, which is typically used to make Soave on the neighboring mainland.

Experiments by Bisol winemaker Roberto Cipresso, Matteo and his father growing dorona in and outside the lagoon revealed that the grapes favored the local soil, a unique combination of limestone, clay and sand. Stranger still, these grapes are more resistant to traces of salt in the soil borne by wind and sea during acqua alta, as the especially high tides Venetians have lived with for centuries are called. In fact, they seem to prefer this saltier turf.

“The other day, we were digging in a part of the vineyard where there is more salinity,” Bisol said. “The color of the rootstock in these areas is really healthy and beautiful, more than those (rootstocks) in the soil with less salinity; it’s how they’ve evolved.”

Of course, there is such a thing as too much salt for these grapes. An unusually severe acqua alta in 1966 is blamed for wiping out many then-remaining lagoon vineyards. Which is why Matteo says his family takes great care to protect their vineyard. Among other things, this meant building and maintaining traditional types of canals beside the vineyard, into which encroaching seawater can drain quickly back to the lagoon.

With Venissa’s success, the Bisol family is looking for other places in the lagoon to plant vines and to build proper winery facilities so they no longer have to transport harvested grapes to the family’s operations in Montalcino for fermentation.

Meanwhile, the title of true native winery, would belong to another relative newcomer, Orto di Venezia, on the neighboring island of Sant’Erasmo.

Founded half a dozen years ago by former French TV producer Michel Thoulouze, Orto means vegetable garden in Italian, a riff on the island’s longtime role as source of Venice’s famed produce, including asparagus and artichokes.

Over a lunch of tender stewed artichoke stalks, peppers stuffed with tuna and hard-boiled eggs garnished with anchovies (and his wines, naturally), Michel told me how when he first visited the island. He fell in love with—and bought—the then-derelict villa on 11 acres of lagoon-side land. Told by locals that his was among the most fertile soil around, Michel chafed at becoming a farmer. But after he came across a 17th-century map referring to his land as Vigna del Nobil Uomo (Nobleman’s Vineyard), he floated the idea of growing wine grapes by friends, who scoffed.

“They all thought I was crazy,” he said.

His pal Alain Graillot, a famed winemaker in France’s Crozes-Hermitage area of the Rhône Valley, recommended soil scientists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, who tested the dirt—which is rich in clay, limestone and sedimentary rock from the Dolomites—and pronounced it excellent for wine. (In contrast, Mazzorbo’s soil is sandier and saltier.) What’s more, because Sant’Erasmo is higher than Venice’s other islands, it’s nearly immune from the ravages of acqua alta.

After months of experimenting with various kinds of grapes, including local varieties such as dorona—which they believed to be a great table grape, but not quite suited to high-quality wine production—Graillot and Michel settled on a blend of malvasia Istriana, vermentino and fiano. The first two, while not indigenous, do well in coastal climes. And fiano, typically found much farther south, in the volcanic soils of Campania, gives a nice minerality to the wine.

Ardent about using minimal intervention in the cellar and organic farming methods in the vineyards, Michel’s wines are a lovely balance of bright fruit and zingy acidity. Each vintage of the single wine the estate produces adheres to a blend of 60 percent malvasia, 30 percent vermentino and 10 percent fiano. And while Venetians don’t seem to share his love of older white wines, he’s still taken to aging magnums of his wine—many of them in the lagoon.

“Under water you have no light, no big jumps in temperature—it’s perfect,” he said, showing me an aged magnum from 2011, frosted with aquatic flora and fauna from its nine-month submersion.

When asked how he goes about cellaring in the lagoon, he conspiratorially winked and told me that he employs a pair of sandolos–traditional Venetian rowboats. One is filled with several hundred bottles filled with newly made wine; the other is merely a decoy with bottles full of seawater. Each sandolo is scuttled somewhere out in the lagoon. Only he and one worker know where.

As word of his wines have spread, so too are the number of visitors to his vineyards, including winemakers curious to learn how he managed to succeed in making wine in Venice’s lagoon, of all places.

“Everyone says the great wines are all made along the 45th parallel,” he said. “Well, here we are right on the 45th parallel.”

Paul Abercrombie is the author of Organic, Shaken and Stirred: Hip Highballs, Modern Martinis and Other Totally Green Cocktails. His writing on food, wine and travel has appeared in The Washington Post, Hemispheres, Penthouse, The Boston Globe, National Geographic Traveler and many more. He lives in Tampa.