Drink

Go with the slow

A venerated Italian wine-making family is creating an appealingly original oasis of hospitality on a Venetian island. Bill Knott reports.

January 19 2011
Bill Knott

Even more serene than La Serenissima herself is the island of Mazzorbo – a tranquil spot in the Venice Lagoon, its long-silent belltower looming over orchards, allotments and a scattering of simple houses. While tourists flock to neighbouring Burano, only a few ever venture over the footbridge to sleepy Mazzorbo.

Were they to do so, the first thing they would see is a vineyard. Five hundred years ago, this would not have been unusual: Venetians have always liked a drop or two of wine, and – despite the predations of the acqua alta, which can leave even St Mark’s Square under a few inches of displaced Adriatic – they have traditionally made quite a lot of it themselves. Its name, vin salso, reflected its distinctly salty aftertaste.

Nowadays, the wine that fuels Venice’s bustling bacari (atmospheric little wine bars serving cicchetti, Venetian tapas) comes from elsewhere in the Veneto: it may be a soave or valpolicella, perhaps, or – the most traditional ombra (literally “shadow”, after the habit of taking a little sharpener in the shade cast by St Mark’s tower) – prosecco, the gentle fizz made in the foothills of the Dolomites, loftily immune to the perils of high tides.

Why, then, would Gianluca Bisol, whose family has owned vineyards in the best parts of the Prosecco region for hundreds of years, decide to turn some of his attention to an old walled vineyard on a small island in the Venice Lagoon, reviving a moribund grape variety, Dorona, to plant in it? The answer lies in Bisol’s long-nurtured desire to re-establish Venice’s traditional farming methods; to put culture back into agriculture.

His project, called Venissa, is nearly finished. There is a restaurant-with-rooms, the former presided over by chef Paola Budel, the latter six basic but deeply appealing accommodations, each framed by ancient wooden beams. The aforementioned orchards and allotments are also part of the project, as is a soon-to-be-restored fish pond: seafood from the lagoon is always on the menu. The maturity of the vines, however, cannot be hurried, and the first vintage is not due for release until 2012.

For Bisol, it is the culmination of eight years’ work. “When I first came across Mazzorbo and its vineyard, I was surprised to see some very old vines there, including Dorona,” he says. “It was obviously not a place where any grape could grow, so I tracked down some other Dorona vines and we made a small amount of wine in 2007.”

After a couple of vintages, Bisol found the “unique character and potential” in the vine that he was looking for, and replanted the vineyard on Mazzorbo. His aim? “To make one of the 10 best white wines in the world.” Quite an ambition, but the project’s underlying philosophy is perhaps more important. “We can see the future in the past,” he says. “What we are doing at Venissa is reviving ancient ways of farming. Sustainable agriculture – fruit orchards and kitchen gardens, as well as the vineyards – is part of the history of the Venice Lagoon, and we hope that this generation, and future generations, can learn from it.” And he is learning, too: the acqua alta burst through the walls a couple of years ago, soaking the young vines’ delicate roots in salty water. This now happens at least 10 times a year. “It drains away in six hours, thanks to the soil, and then we just clean the vines with fresh water.”

Bisol has noble aims; the visitor, however, can be assured that no trace of worthiness impinges on the experience. The rooms in the sturdy old manor house may be basic – and, incidentally, excellent value – but they are far from spartan: antique furniture, colourful rugs and modern lighting add chic touches to the white simplicity.

The restaurant is a little pricier, but the food is sublime. Paola Budel worked under Gualtiero Marchesi, the first Italian chef to gain three Michelin stars, but she has, thankfully, abandoned Marchesi’s modernist obsessions in favour of a cleaner, simpler, more elegant style of cooking. Produce is invariably local, some of it coming from the estate’s allotment, tended by the senior citizens of Burano – a scheme masterminded by Bisol as part of his “back to the future” approach – and prepared in Budel’s state-of-the-art De Manincor kitchen.

My lunch included a lovely piece of lightly salted cod (probably not from the lagoon, but Venice does have a long association with cod from the North Atlantic – the dried, unsalted stoccafisso in particular) with a purée of fresh beetroot; some delightful ham tortelloni scattered with little lagoon clams, smoked ricotta and basil; and a perfect tart filled with boozy bitter cherries and crème anglaise. All washed down, naturally, with some light, fragrant Bisol prosecco: the Dorona will have to wait, although the vines looked very healthy from the comfort of the restaurant terrace.

Burano may be impossibly crowded during the day, its kaleidoscopic architecture obscured by hordes of snap-happy visitors, but – thanks to a lack of accommodation – it empties at night. When the fancy lace shops and most of the restaurants close, the guests at Venissa can stroll over the bridge to a much calmer island. Or they might instead choose to walk off some of Venissa’s magnificent breakfast before the first vaporetti start to chug into town.

Mazzorbo is roughly the same size as Burano but, save for a clutch of pretty painted council houses built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the two islands have little in common. Burano, boasting photogenic canals, bridges and brightly coloured houses, is a winsome Venice in miniature; while Mazzorbo has a couple of football pitches among its scrubland and smallholdings.

Mazzorbo is a 34-minute boat ride from Venice itself, and is the closest island to the airport, making Venissa an eminently sensible base from which to see the sights without being clasped too tightly in the city’s sometimes tiresome tentacles. The estate has a sense of grace and space that is deeply soothing, a tribute to the years of hard work that have gone into its construction, and the vision of its creator.

Not that Gianluca Bisol is finished there. On the contrary, he and his investors are already at work restructuring a property on Burano, and the once-powerful, now mostly deserted island of Torcello is also on his radar. Meeting him, it is not difficult to understand why he has the support of many millionaires and cultural organisations, including Slow Food; his passion and enthusiasm are contagious. Venissa, you feel, is just the beginning.

See also

Wines