The vintners Bisol of Veneto are one of the few families in Italy that can claim five centuries, across 21 generations, of legacy with vineyards and viticulture. From 1542 they produce wine in the heart of the historic Prosecco appellation, in the hillside of Cartizze, some 30 miles away from Venice. In 2002 Gianluca Bisol discovered a few clones of Dorona grape in a private garden on the island of Burano in the Venetian lagoon; it was a variety once used to make the wine for the Doges. A wine custom destroyed (and forgotten) by the flood of 1966 with a story dating back to the 12th century when vineyards could be found in Piazza San Marco before the great Venetian palazzos were built.
The Bisol family restored the walled estate of Venissa, in the heart of the lagoon, bottled the first vintage in 2012, started welcoming travelers in a charming resort, right next to the vineyards, and opened an elegant restaurant, taking full advantage of the property’s bountiful vegetable gardens and orchards. Today Venissa’s wines are served at the most refined tables of Italy: from Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, to Heinz Beck’s Pergola in Roma and Norbert Niederkofler’s St. Hubertus in the Dolomites.
This is an extract from a short interview I had with Matteo Bisol, manager of Venissa.
Livio: Describe your activity as food artisan?
Matteo: To say Bisol is to say land, as my family has always been the custodian of land through viticulture. When we found out that the squares in Venice were also cultivated – and for this reason, they are called campi, fields – we could not resist the desire to start cultivating the islands of the Venetian lagoon again. Almost 20 years ago my father found a few old vines of an almost disappeared grape, the Venetian Dorona, from which we produce today a macerated white wine of great character. We then fell in love with the lagoon, its fishing, its herbs, and its vegetables: ingredients with a unique flavor that characterize the cuisine of our Venissa restaurant. In just a few years from our debut, and thanks to the talent of a new generation of local cooks, such as our resident chef Chiara Pavan, we have been rewarded with many national and international accolades.
L: What’s your client base like?
M: Well, these days we can not complain: 40% of our restaurant customers are Italian. Quite a good share if one considers that in Venice itself the average is lower than 15%. Our wines are normally sold-out before being released; we barely supply our restaurant’s needs and a few more in Italy while also managing to serve iconic restaurants abroad like Spiaggia in Chicago.
L: When did you see things changing after the pandemic of Covid-19?
M: We closed the hotel and the restaurant, in the last week of February, right amidst the Carnival celebrations. But our agricultural activities did not stop. After a tough winter for the vines, with the most critical acqua alta ever recorded since we started to make wine in the lagoon, we had a merciful early spring with impeccable sprouting and vegetation.
L: What has changed in your day-to-day activity?
M: We were forced to be creative, to reinvent ourselves, and our roles. Just consider Enrico, our superb head waiter, who has gone from dining to tending the vineyards in a matter of days. Iconic and unforgettable for himself and for everyone in our team. Few weeks before COVID, Venice had suffered its second-ever Acqua Alta in history, threatening our vines, completely submerged in seawater for days. Fortunately, Dorona is used to brackish waters like no other grape and over the centuries it has developed the strength to survive and flourish in a lagoon-like environment.
L: How long can you stay in business in this situation?
M: We have been lucky so far, thanks to our fantastic and generous customers. Many are supporting us, buying our wines and our restaurant bonds, a simple yet effective initiative that allows them to buy a discounted voucher for a meal at our restaurant: paying for one today and having dinner for two in the future. The response we had was incredible and the love of our customers pushes us to remain positive in such a difficult moment.
L: What do you foresee in the future?
M: I expect two very difficult years for tourism and hospitality, especially for Venice.
L: What’s your wish for the years to come?
M: Venissa was born to provide Venice and its lagoon with a different model of hospitality. Today we have the historical opportunity to rethink a new tourism model for the city. I would like to see no more large cruise ships in Venice waters, and no masses of tourists anymore: our narrow streets and canals are not suitable for large groups. I am in favor of a radical change of direction, for more conscious tourism, one that supports local fishing, agriculture, and crafts, as they can all be preserved and foster better tourism. Venissa is a clear example of what can be achieved: we have restored old winegrowing traditions, we support local fishermen, we use the herbs and vegetables of the lagoon and we keep elderly people busy cultivating the gardens that supply our kitchens.
L: What have you learned from this experience?
M: I was confirmed that simple things are the most important ones. Even at home, I am fine. The only things I miss are hugs and relationships with friends.
L: Are you expecting help from the state?
M: The state is currently paying the layoff to our employees, and this helped us not having to fire anyone. Many in our staff have children, mortgages, and diverse financial commitments. Knowing that Italy supports them and provides us all with a free public health system helps us to look forward with hope.
In the video below the making of the wine of the Venetian Doges.