Secondo: vine dining in Venice

Winechap journeys through the lagoon on a vinous adventure

Image: Teresa Harrow

First stop on our journey by boat through Venice's lagoon was to Sant'Erasmo, famous for the castraure artichokes, whose brief season our visit coincided with, and also increasingly for French ex-pat Michel Thoulouze's 4.5-hectare Orto vineyard, the first viticultural endeavour in the region since the floods of 1966.

Planting vines in the heavily saline soils of a flood-prone island is no less barmy than building a city-state on a network of marshy sand banks – so where better than Venice to blaze a trail. Through the auspices of his winemaker friend Alain Graillot of Crozes Hermitage, Thoulouze was able to get oenologists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon to examine his land. With clay and limestone-rich subsoil plus sedimentary rock washed down from the snow-capped Dolomites to the north, as well as salty breezes that act as a natural pest repellent, it appeared that the island was more suited to wine production than imagined.

However, it then took a lot of work: wall-building, drainage-channel dredging, and planting ungrafted Malvasia Istriana and Vermentino, two Italian varieties that traditionally perform well in coastal regions. In combination, the grapes give a wine of body, firm acidity and aromatic freshness and – with the addition of Fiano, seen more often in the volcanic soils of Avellino in Campania – structure and an intense minerality. The wines are allowed to ferment out their sugars naturally (2010 was 12.5%, the hotter 2011 was 13.9%), see no oak of any kind and, using the resources to hand, magnums are aged in boats sunk in the lagoon – an excellent cellar.  

We tried 2010 and 2008, the latter with a broader, oilier mouth-feel, the former showing a vitality and refreshing bitterness on the finish. Thoulouze is justifiably proud of his pioneering endeavours, but a 17th-century map of the region describing his land as "Il Vitigno Nobiluomo" (the nobleman's vineyard), suggests he was building on firmer foundations than La Serenissima itself.

Continuing our journey, we passed Isola San Francesco del Deserto, whose sole denizens were the seven monks who lived in the monastery, apparently all with characters much like the dwarves of the same number (one was even called Padre Felice - Happy) and perhaps a spritz to match (see the seven Venetian spritzes I wrote about in post one).  Anchoring at Torcello, where one of Venice's oldest religious edifices, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, was sacked by marauding Goths and rebuilt in the 11th and 12th centuries, we got our first glimpse of ancient Dorana vines in the courtyard – less than a third of a hectare, tended by Venissa's team, and the inspiration for their remarkable project. As we set sail for Burano, the sky was still clear but a late afternoon sun reflected off the lagoon, illuminating massive black storm clouds gathering to the north and heading towards the islands, like the barbarian hordes of old – a remarkably ominous and atmospheric skyscape.

Image: Teresa Harrow

Passing a number of rowers practising for one of Venice's many regattas, we steered into Burano; famous for lace, fish and the brightly painted houses that allowed the fishermen to find their homes after a long day on the boats (or longer night in the taverns).  A violent squall blew up as we headed for dinner at Gatto Nero, so we were happy to seek refuge in clams, mussels, whole baby octopus, baccala mounted polenta, queen scallops, then pappardelle with scampi and smoked ricotta followed by cuttlefish baked in its ink and roast monkfish, washed down with Borgo del Tiglio's unsurpassed Tocai Friulano – all apple blossoms and quince paste.

Groaning with seafood, I did not really pay much attention to our environs as I staggered back to our room on neighbouring Mazzorbo, linked to Burano by footbridge, so the next morning was our proper introduction to Venissa, the Bisol family's restaurant, rooms and vineyard. The latter, less than a hectare of the nearly extinct native Venetian Dorana grapes, has been meticulously curated from a few surviving vines in the walled gardens of former monastery Chiesa San Michele Arcangelo. (The remainder of the garden has been given over to herbs and vegetables, tended by the most green-fingered of Buranos's Retired Association, which is paid by Venissa's kitchen for the produce they bring daily to its door.)  It's a fascinating vineyard, with several bald patches on the slightly lower areas where high tide renders the soil too saline for fruit development. Only 4,000 to 5,000 of the 50cl bottles are produced annually, refired in a Murano workshop and decorated with gold leaf, another of Venice's traditional skills (the acceptable side of bling, not least because Dorana's ancient name uva doro means golden grape). On the restaurant terrace, watching passers-by wandering through the vineyard and Michelin-starred chef Antonia Klugmann nip out to collect herbs for our lunch, we sampled the two vintages produced so far.

The 2011 vintage offered a heady and evolving nose of acacia, beeswax, fennel tops, young peach, saffron, chalk, and golden delicious apples. Meanwhile the palate, underpinned by salinity and a lick of tannins from 25 days’ skin maceration, oscillated between wild-garlic bitterness and orange-blossom sweetness, with grapefruit, physalis and quince yielding to spiced pear, more saffron, a pinch of cumin, cinnamon, and resin.

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The 2010 showed more burnished aromas, an almost Pinot Noir red-fruit character plus almond and hazelnut, with hints of popcorn. The mouth-feel was waxier, with honey-drizzled banana sprinkled with nutmeg, jostling with five spice, paprika, pastry crust and papaya – overall a more nut character with less fruit sweetness.  It was the more complete wine currently, but one sensed that the 2011 had a greater number of elements that would come into fusion.  These wines are hard to make comparisons with but imagine an aged Jura Savagnin with cleaner fingernails meeting the new wave of natural Semillon or Chenin Blancs from the Hunter Valley or Anjou and you are probably only slightly more confused than I am.  Still wrestling to find a frame of reference for these scintillating wines, I moved inside for lunch.

My opening comments in the previous post suggested Venice's gastronomic offerings often underwhelm, but I'm very happy to eat those words – so long as they are cooked by Antonia Klugmann, who served up one of my best meals of the year so far. Based around the vegetables and herbs growing within 150 metres of her kitchen, together with seafood from the neighbouring island's fishermen, this is a menu that could inspire violence when confronted by yet another London restaurant trumpeting its thin commitment to seasonal and locally sourced produce.  

Rather than recreating Venetian classics, Klugmann rebuilds the local ingredients into new forms: eel is marinated for six hours and served in a celery reduction, the key ingredient being a distinctive white wine vinegar from a wine producer in her native Friuli. With produce coming in and out of season for scant weeks, the menu is in a constant state of flux so mentioning the dishes we enjoyed may be like commending shooting stars. However, from the opening strawberry and rocket broth to the closing rosemary pannacotta, via raw tiger prawns in chamomile and wild garlic, hazelnuts with morels and bruscandoli, castraure in prawn's head emulsion with red turnip, and turbot's tripe with cauliflower and watercress, it was a masterclass of simple sophistication.  Apparently Venissa has garnered a Michelin star – but please don't let that put you off.

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Lunch was accompanied by a surprisingly effective flight of Bisol sparklers, perhaps the only Prosecco producer who could pull this off. We began with their lively Superiore NoSo2 –  a sop to the sulphate-intolerant, and so sensitive that it's wrapped in aluminium foil to protect it from the light.  This contrasted starkly with their excellent Metodo Classico from the ripe 2009 vintage – a lush, leesy, peach cobbler of a fizz, this would put many a Franciacorta in the shade. The Cartizze that followed was, if you enjoy a sure thing, as good as Prosecco gets, but the real (and unexpected) star of the show was the Pas Dosé 2002, a thrillingly autocratic extra brut that was more Cote des Blancs than Cartizze. We finished with Bisol's CEO 2007 – not as senior as it sounds but an exotic red blend of Pinot noir, the Cabernets, Merlot and Marzemino – an olfactory orgy of mostly glossy international grapes that melded satisfyingly on the tongue and worked well with the ferrous character of the turbot's tripe.

Heading to our waiting vaporetto back to Marco Polo, I was minded not to forget two things that had particularly struck me over the past 48 hours. Firstly, the fact that not enough visitors to Venice experience the joys of the lagoon and its islands – a wholly different but arguably more real experience than jostling with day-trippers on the Bridge of Sighs. Secondly, that the problem with eating and drinking well is that it means that you need a good reason for doing so badly. La Serenissima may offer both ends of the spectrum, but I'm delighted to have lost faith in my previously held convictions.

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