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Venissa and the Dorona Grapes of the Doges

Venissa and the Dorona Grapes of the Doges

The Venissa vineyard in the foreground of an aerial view ©Nevio Doz
Aerial view of Mazzorbo and Burano ©Nevio Doz

Once upon a time, rows of Dorona grape vines (d’oro means gold in Italian) meandered across the main island of Venice, their great golden globes, and the wine they produced, beloved of the Doges. Over time, the vineyards retreated to the outer islands of the Venetian Lagoon. Then, following the great flood of 1966, the vines disappeared. Most people thought they were extinct until one day, through a twist of fate, a few were found on the island of Torcello

The resurrection of the Dorona grape is a magical tale, brought to life by the imagination and passion of Gianluca Bisol (scion of the family that since 1542 served as the vintners of the Prosecco empire.) Today, the grapes and the wine they produce are the star attractions at the Venissa Wine Resort on the Venetian Island of Mazzorbo.

The wooden bridge between Burano and Mazzorbo, ©Bill Gent
The bridge from Burano to Mazzorbo, Venice ©Bill Gent

THE DISCOVERY OF THE GRAPES

Gian Luca Bisol accidentally discovered the long lost vines while showing a friend around the island of Torcello, the most ancient settlement in the Venetian Lagoon.

According to Gian Luca, “I was visiting Torcello with friends when I noticed an old grapevine next to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. It was the lovely, thick-skinned, famous Dorona served at banquets of the Doges and then lost to history.”

Bisol brought the vines to Mazzorbo where he convinced the Venetian authorities to let him use a long-abandoned vineyard on the island (once connected to a monastery) to create a new home for the Dorona grapes. Over time the vineyard expanded to include two restaurants and a guesthouse.

The 11th-century church of St. Michael Archangel on Mazzorbo
Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, Mazzorbo, ©Bill Gent

THE VINEYARD

A short wooden bridge connects Mazzorbo to the island of Burano, famed for its brightly colored fishermen’s cottages. Few people disembark from the ferry at Mazzorbo, and fewer yet bother to walk across the bridge. The Venissa Wine Resort sits a few steps away.

Venissa is a perfect example of a “walled vineyard.” There are only four acres of Dorona vines encircled by medieval monastery walls, restored in 1727. Marble markers set into the two sidewalls of the estate confirm the dates. In the corner, stands the 14th-century campanile of the 11th century Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, towering over the vineyards.

Venissa uses natural viticulture procedures, aimed at promoting biodiversity and sustainability. The Dorona vines are survivors, a hardy bunch, growing in sometimes extreme conditions. The roots of the plants burrow deep into the clay soil, built up over centuries. Periodic “acqua alta” or high waters that extensively flood the island regularly inundate the vines. While this puts the vines at risk, it also adds a unique flavor to the wine, as does the salt air.

Drainage ditches cross the vineyard, designed to minimize the amount of time the 4,000 vines are exposed to the natural ebb and flow of the lagoon waters.

Acqua alta regularly floods the Venissa vineyards
A flooded Venissa vineyard ©Venissa

At the end of each row of vines, rose bushes add a dash of color to the vineyard. They are not there just for their beauty. Roses and vines have a symbiotic relationship. Roses are like canaries in the coal mine – they show signs of disease, fungi, insects and other threats before the vines do. By monitoring the health of the roses, it is possible to forestall problems with the vines.

An enormous fruit and vegetable garden, filled with heirloom plants, sits next to the vineyard. Nine retirees living on nearby Burano tend the gardens. They come every day to grow tomatoes, artichokes, zucchini, beans, herbs and much more, used in Venissa’s two restaurants.

A box of Dorona di Venezia wine bottles
Bottles of Dorona di Venezia ©Bill Gent

THE DORONA WINE

Eight years after planting the vines on Mazzorbo, Gian Luca Bisol and his son, Matteo, harvest their first grapes in 2010. With the help of two oenologists (his brother, Desiderio Bisol and the acclaimed Tuscan winemaker, Roberto Cipresso), the grapes are turned into one of the rarest wines in the world, a tribute to Venice’s past and the Bisols’ passion for their city.

Matteo Bisol, Gian Luca’s son and managing director of Venissa, describes to us how harvesting of the grapes takes place during the first ten days of September. Then, the oenologists use a maceration process that includes the Dorona grape skins, seeds, and stems, a method normally used to produce red wine. The wine is left to age for two years. The resulting golden wine is robust, with traces of honey and white peaches as well as a briny tang.

Not content to merely “package” this delectable rarity in a run-of-the-mill container, the Bisols use two other Venetian traditions – glass and gold — to turn each bottle of Dorona di Venezia wine into a unique work of Venetian art.

The Carlo Moretti glassworks on Murano produces the hand-blown bottles to contain the wine. Each is etched with a serial number and hand-labeled with a sheet of pure gold leaf by descendants of the ancient Berta Battiloro family (the name means “beaters of gold”) before being fired onto the glass. Like the winemaking, the tradition of gold leaf work is one that has almost disappeared from Venice.

Two glasses of golden Dorona di Venezia wine
Two glasses of Dorona wine at Venissa ©Bill Gent

ROSSO VENISSA

To resurrect wine production in the Venetian Lagoon further, in 2011 the Bisols added a red wine named Rosso Venissa to their cellar, a mixture of Merlot and Carmenere, grown on a 50-year old vineyard located on the nearby island of Santa Cristina.

Francesco Brutto and Chiara Pavan, award-winning chefs at Venissa ©mattia-mionetto
The Chefs, Venissa, ©mattia-mionetto

VENISSA THE RESTAURANTS

In addition to the vineyard, the estate is also home to two restaurants that showcase the food of the Venetian lagoon.

The restaurants (Ristorante Venissa and Osteria Contemporanea) are presided over by award-winning young Chefs, Francesco Brutto and Chiara Pavan. Francesco was named the Best Young Italian chef in 2017, while Chiara was named Italian Chef of the Year in 2018. Ristorante Venissa, which opened in 2010, was awarded a Michelin star in 2012.

Theirs is an innovative, daring, avant-garde cuisine with a twist on local ingredients, including from the resort’s extensive vegetable garden. Five or seven-course tasting menus change with the seasons, always showcasing the riches of the lagoon. It is a true locavore experience.

Wealth of the Venetian Lagoon ©Lido Vannucchi
Cozze ripiene ©Lido Vannucchi

While we are disappointed not to be able to dine at Ristorante Venissa (closed for the season), the more casual Osteria Contemporanea is a worthy replacement. We enjoy a four-course lunch of shellfish and fish from the lagoon, fresh pasta, and dessert washed down by the glasses of the liquid gold Dorona.

Baccalà appetizer, Venissa
Cicchetti of baccalà, Osteria Contemporanea, Venissa ©bill gent

VENISSA GUESTHOUSE or ALBERGO DIFFUSO

To provide an all-round resort experience to their guests, the Bisols created the Venissa guesthouse with five rooms on Mazzorbo, next to the Ristorante. Queen-sized beds, exposed beam ceilings, wood floors, and private baths provide cozy accommodations. A complimentary gourmet breakfast is included.

In addition to the guesthouse, Venissa also has renovated some buildings on Burano, to accommodate 13 suites. Located in houses that were once inhabited by local fishermen or lace makers, the suites are part of an “albergo diffuso.”

The term “albergo diffuso” (or scattered hotel) refers to a new concept for hotels in Italy. Instead of offering rooms in a single structure, these hotels offer accommodations in different locations in the area. The concept provides the Italians a means to repurpose properties in areas where the inhabitants have moved away. It also offers a model for sustainable tourism since it avoids the construction of large-scale hotels and gives visitors an authentic experience of living with the local people.

The essence of Venissa is a tribute to Venice’s past. The Bisols hope that in time, the Venetian Lagoon will become one of the most exciting wine regions in the world.

A canal on Burano, Venice ©Bill Gent
Houses in Burano © Bill Gent

IF YOU GO

The Venissa Wine Resort is located on the island of Mazzorbo, next to Burano in the Venetian Lagoon. Vaporetto Number 12 from the Fondamente Nove regularly travels to Mazzorbo.
Tel. 39-041052-72-281; info@venissa.it

Ristorante Venissa is open from the beginning of April to the end of October. You can make reservations for either lunch or dinner. Online booking is available until 24 hours in advance at https://venissa.dinesuperb.com/reserve/experience.

Osteria Contemporanea is open for lunch (1200-1600) from the beginning of March to the end of October. Although we walked in without a reservation, it is recommended that you make one before going to avoid disappointment. There are also special events organized such as the oyster dinner on 9 February 2019, to celebrate the introduction of oysters in Brittany, France, by Venetians.

The Guest House and Albergo Diffuso are open from the beginning of March to the end of November.

Our photographs of Venice, Mazzorbo, and Burano can be found at Allegria Photos.

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