Most ‘Venetian’ wines are really from the Veneto, rather than the city itself – after all, you wouldn’t reasonably expect vines to flourish on water. But on a recent trip I got to see the few that do, part of the Belmond Hotel Cipriani’s tour of Venice’s hidden vineyards.
Rich in clay and limestone sluiced down from the snow-capped Dolomites to the north, the island of Sant’Erasmo has been supplying fresh fruit and vegetables to the city’s market for centuries – not least its castraure (‘castrated’) artichokes and white peaches. Less is known about its viticultural renaissance, stimulating Cipriani regulars like the Clooneys and Mayfair haunts like 5 Hertford Street and the Arts Club with its wine.
Michel Thoulouze, the former French TV producer behind Orto’s 4.5-hectare vineyard, was there to greet us as we clambered from our Riva onto the dock, stood before his rustic and rather ruffled-looking plot, contrasting with the huge modernist windows spliced into the old farmhouse.
The gravelly Montpellian proudly explains how he finally abandoned his ‘big house’ and career at Canal Plus for a ‘small house with a big view’, acquiring the Noble Homme vineyard in the early 2000s after two years of negotiation: ‘It wasn’t even negotiation – nobody was buying in the lagoon. There was no market,’ he says, flanked by an enormous chicken and a small, three-wheeled red Ape truck. ‘Now Philippe Starck has two houses in front.’
With a 180-degree view of the lagoon, we tuck into a plate of fresh local artichokes, eggs, fish and pate as Thoulouze pours his signature whites, telling us how Sant’Erasmo was covered in monastic vineyards until the 16th century when the black plague arrived and killed a third of Venice’s population – including everyone on Sant’Erasmo. It wasn’t until 1820 that farmers made a timid return to focus on its famous artichokes.
Fast forward to the flood of 1966, the great ‘acqua alta’. ‘It was a complete disaster,’ says Thoulouze, telling me how the worst flood in Venice’s history salted the soils and decimated the local industry in two days. (Venetians soon returned to their lackadaisical attitude towards flooding after it was revealed no lives or art were lost.)
Undeterred by locals who called him ‘crazy’, advising him to plant artichokes and other ‘boring’ vegetables instead, Thoulouze relocated with his family to relaunch wine production on the island using the 18th century traditional methods – that of ‘nobleman’s wine’ favoured by the doges (not to mention Casanova himself, our charming guide Manuel tells us) centuries ago. After a lot of ‘wall-building, drainage-channelling and planting’, the salty, sedimentary subsoil proved to be a better host than imagined. ‘The miracle of this wine is the earth. It’s clay – not sand,’ Thoulouze tells me.
Sitting on what he calls the ‘best land on the island’, he enlisted the help of local farmers and expert ‘earth doctors’ Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, whose laboratory specialises in cultivated soil science, and Alain Graillot, renowned for his Crozes Ermitage wines. He won the sceptical experts’ help to rear the ungrafted Fermentino, Fiano di Avellino and Malvasia Istriana vines on one strict condition: that he made Venice’s first wine in memory a ‘great’ one.
And it is good. Light and crisp, to be sure, 2010 is the superior to 2011 – both smoother and stronger. The two have a distinctly mineral body, with acidity and aroma embodying their terroir.
The peculiarity extends beyond their appellation: unlike most ‘Italian’ wines, the vines aren’t grafted onto American roots (a common method after the phylloxera epidemic that devastated Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th century). Planted by direct seeding – rather than ploughing – the ground beneath is still prepared only with barley, radish ‘and, of course, never any weedkiller’. It’s all about returning to tradition, and something more authentic, says Thoulouze: ‘If you have good grapes, you don’t need sophisticated fermentation… This is not technical wine.’
Aged for ten years, they also ‘see no oak whatsoever’ – instead submerged in the lagoon for nine months (he sank his first batch on a boat), where temperature, light and oxygen remain at a constant. True to the rustic vibe, our specimens still had sediment and aquatic plant-life fused to the bottle.
Popular with chefs, it’s no wonder they’re suited to the produce of the Venice lagoon, Thoulouze insists: fish, seafood, artichokes and asparagus.
We take another short hop on the Riva across the open lagoon, accompanied by Manuel’s fluent oral history of passing monuments, masterpieces and walls built to hide the doges’ ancient trade secrets, to where Mazzorbo meets Burano’s multicoloured waterfront. Here lies the Venissa estate, ‘a unique vineyard where the vine has found its magical equilibrium between the fertility of a soil well-suited to grape growing, and the continuous threat of salt and water,’ say its owners.
Immaculately trimmed under the gaze of its arresting 14th century bell tower and Cypress trees, the tiny 0.8 hectare plot is certainly a rather more chic-looking, dressed-up affair than Noble Homme – a hidden gem unknown even to Venetians.
The project is the brainchild of the Bisol family, winemakers going back 500 years, who produce some of Italy’s best-known prosecco in Valdobbiadene, an hour’s drive north of the city.
The family only discovered the Mazzorbo plot by chance in 2002 when Matteo Bisol spotted it on his way home from Torcello’s Byzantine Cathedral. Catching up with the garden’s owner, he had a eureka moment: ‘It was one of the few vineyards that survived the exceptional acqua alta,’ he says. But it had a greater secret within its medieval walls: its indigenous vines – the Dorona di Venezia, named for the unique golden hue of its grapes – were considered all but extinct.
Bisol and his father Gianluca scratched around, discovering 80 other Dorona vines left hidden away in vegetable gardens and convents, both in native Venice and on Sant’Erasmo.
They purchased the property and replanted the vineyard within the walls of the former convent. Now complete with a modern Michelin-starred restaurant and a six-room inn, Venissa dispenses its wine in glinting bottles unmarked but for the hand-written serial number – up to around 4,000 or so a year and adorned with locally-made sheets of gold leaf that have become their trademark.
We sat sampling the wine – Venissa 2011, a limited production ‘sought after by enthusiasts all over the world’, our hosts tell us, with octopus salad, calamari and clams caught by Burano’s fishermen and vegetables from the estate’s own garden inside the culinary hideaway. Light and fresh, they went down well with the saline wine.
Looking around, it’s clear that the family have a sense of style (Matteo’s wife is an interior designer), fine-tailoring everything from the sculptures to the smart website. But more importantly, the wine is top-notch – as perhaps you might expect when half a litre will cost you €140. ‘Close your eyes,’ says Bisol, as we tuck in. ‘It’s like a red.’ Briney and crisp, the hints of its origins are again obvious: soil rich with lime, clay and microorganisms.
As with the great reds, he tells us, the grapes’ must is left in contact with the skins for almost thirty days, extracting ‘complex’ aromas and the golden body that distinguishes the Venetian grapes. Bisol insists we try his favourite combo: ‘Turbot and artichokes – which may seem like a difficult pairing – but one that goes perfectly.’
‘Venissa is a wine that is impossible to describe with words, a unique wine that merits being tried at least once in life,’ he tells us. ‘I think that the lagoon’s is a place whose potential for wine production is still very much undervalued… We have shown that it is possible to make incredible wines in Venice, and I hope that there will soon be more high-level wine projects like ours and that of Michel Thoulouze’s.’
Back at the Cipriani, our hosts lay on the only yellow gondola in Venice – complete with their head sommelier to dish out unfussy sandwiches, and of course, more wine – this time Ribolla Giallia, Friuli wine from Collio, to the north of Venice. The hotel will happily arrange for you to visit the vineyards there too – but you’ll need to venture much further out.
Sat under a deep blue sky in the late afternoon, floating just outside the bounds of the hotel and a world away from the bustling throngs and selfie-sticks of St Marks, the sense of stillness and peace was only interrupted by our laughter.
Arranged for guests through the Belmond Hotel Cipriani directly, the four-hour tour is priced at €1,980 (approx. £1,433) for two people and €110 (approx. £80) for each additional person (maximum eight people).
The price includes transportation on the hotel’s private boat; visits to the islands of San Michele (with wine tasting), Sant’Erasmo (with wine tasting and snacks) and Mazzorbo (with wine tasting and lunch); and a tour guide. The Belmond Hotel Cipriani serves both Orto and Venissa wines.
Orto’s wines are available to buy in London at Hedonism