If you were looking for an agreeable location to establish a vineyard, you could do a whole lot better than the string of marshy islands that make up Italy’s Venetian lagoon. Never mind the shortage of available real estate and a waterborne logistics economy that makes almost everything more expensive than it is on the mainland. Venice and the islands surrounding it make up what could be the world’s most romantic chronic flood zones, an area routinely inundated by the lagoon’s brackish water during acqua alta, or periods of exceptionally high tides.
But when Matteo Bisol’s family rediscovered the indigenous Dorona di Venezia—a grape long thought to be extinct—growing on an island in the lagoon, it never crossed his mind to replant it anywhere but in its salty native soil. “The water, the canals, the lagoon—all the things that tourists love—these are things that make our terroir unique,” Bisol says. Instead, he and his father began seeking out the right location in which to resurrect not only the Dorona grape, but a centuries-old winemaking tradition that was all but wiped out in the middle of the last century.
The result is Venissa, a honey-hued, skin-contact wine that Bisol now produces from a small, two-acre vineyard on the island of Mazzorbo, a short 20-minute vaporetto ride from Venice proper. The name fronts both the wine itself and a property that includes a minimalist-chic six-room guesthouse and a Michelin-starred restaurant. Nearly a decade after the release of its first vintage, Venissa’s squat, distinctive 500-milliliter bottles pressed with gold leaf labels enjoy an enthusiastic, cultish fan base. And for good reason: It’s a wine that happened more or less by accident, and one that could someday disappear once again.
Though somewhat difficult to picture between the throngs of tourists and souvenir stalls now crowding Venice, grapes have been grown in the city for more than 2,000 years. At the height of its medieval power, Venice’s role as a major trading hub prompted the import of wine from other wine regions in Italy and elsewhere. But the hardy Dorona grape—native to the lagoon and evolutionarily hardened to thrive in salty soils in which other vines would wither—persisted as a symbol of Venetian prestige.
The story of Dorona’s near-demise unfolded over a millennia. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Venetian Republic’s rising power led its inhabitants to rely less on themselves and more on the vast trading networks Venice commanded. Producing wine on the islands proved more expensive than buying wine from abroad. The acqua alta continued to menace harvests, making viticulture a risky enterprise. Over time, globalized trade gave Venetians access to wines from anywhere in the world, and its wine industry dwindled.
The coup de grâce came in 1966, however, when a historically catastrophic high tide swamped much of the lagoon for more than two days. (Typically such events last just a few hours.) The prolonged flooding proved more than even the hardened Dorona vines could handle, destroying the remaining active vineyards across Venice and bringing Dorona wine production to a complete halt. Many thought none of the grapes survived.
In 2002, while on a visit to one of the lagoon’s oldest cathedrals on the Venetian island of Torcellos, Gianluca Bisol, noticed a tiny vineyard behind a house opposite the church. Gianluca—Matteo’s father—possesses an acute appreciation for centuries-old Italian winemaking traditions. The Bisol family produces some of the world’s most celebrated proseccos in Valdobbiadene, and has done so going back to the 1500s. Intrigued, he knocked on the front door of the house and asked the woman who answered if she knew the provenance of the grapes. Some of them, she said, were Dorona.
The discovery led Gianluca and Matteo to scour the lagoon for more surviving Dorona, which they found in a few places scattered about the lagoon, most abundantly on the island of Sant’Erasmo. After a great deal of searching, soil sampling, and anecdotal research, the Bisols had acquired roughly 80 surviving Dorona grape vines as well as the old farm on Mazzorbo now known as Venissa.
“We didn’t try to grow it outside of Venice, because we knew the result would be completely different if we planted it in a different environment,” Matteo Bisol says. For the Bisols, the resurrection of the old Venetian style of winemaking is as much about the lagoon’s unique characteristics as the Dorona grape. “We really want to emphasize the quality of the terroir, and the dorona is the best way do it.”
The best way, it turns out, is also the traditional way, Bisol says. Venetians have long made their white wines in a skin-contact style (such wines are now commonly referred to as “orange wines”) because conditions in the lagoon made it impossible to dig deep cellars in which to age the wine away from the summer heat. A long maceration on the grape skins imparted the wines with some of the structure and longevity of a red wine, making it more resistant to the hot Venetian summers.
The resulting drink is the closest one can get to drinking the wine of medieval Venetian nobility, with a slight tannic quality imparted by the skins, notes of singed orange, peach, and honey, and a distinctive salinity reminiscent of Venissa’s origins. “It tastes like no other wine,” says Chef Tony Mantuano of Michelin-starred restaurant Spiaggia in Chicago. “Being a rare gift from nature, it makes us think about what good wine long ago must have been like and how lucky we are that we can taste this rare wine today.”
Venissa’s small outturn, often just 2,500-3,500 bottles per year, has made it a sought-after wine among enthusiasts. It doesn’t help that orange wines—and orange wines hailing from Veneto in particular—have never been more fashionable. The high demand and frustratingly low supply can make the bottle difficult to find.
It could become scarcer still. For wine regions around the world, climate change is already manifesting itself, whether in bumper grape harvests in Germany or devastating wildfires in Northern California’s wine country. But while much of the industry can still talk about climate change in relatively abstract terms, in the Venetian lagoon, rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns represent acutely understood existential threats.
There’s virtually nothing Venissa can do to mitigate flooding on Mazzorbo, Bisol says, leaving the vineyard in a perilous position as sea levels rise alongside global temperatures. The vineyard can use its irrigation to flush the soil following acqua alta events to reduce residual salinity somewhat, but another prolonged flood like the one that nearly wiped out Dorona in 1966 will undoubtedly destroy what Venissa has carefully built.
“We know that someday a high tide will destroy our vineyard,” Bisol says. “In the meantime, we just want to make some of the best wine in the world. That’s the point.”