Midway through my monumental wine tour of Veneto, Italy—the northeastern region surrounding Venice, stretching from the Dolomite Mountains to the Adriatic Sea—I had an epiphany. Fittingly, it happened in a church. Located on the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon, The Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta contains a Byzantine mosaic of the Last Judgment (Piazza Capitolo, 1, Aquileia; 39-0/4319-1067; basilicadiaquileia.it). My host, Matteo Bisol pointed at the bony, damned souls gnawing at their own hands. “These are gluttons like me, and maybe you, who love to eat and drink too much,” he said. The Dantean view of things suddenly made sense. That’s just desserts, I thought. I’ve been gorging in heaven, so I’ll starve in hell. It was all a matter of balance.
This turned out to be the trip’s theme. Despite a reputation for indulgence, the Italian palate, as I experienced it in Veneto, is less into extremes than harmony and proportion. Being American, I know no such restraint. Torcello, Matteo told me, was populated in the 6th century by mainlanders fleeing invading barbarians. I understood those marauders; as I rumbled along, pillaging pantries and wine cellars, dozing off in between in the backseat of a chauffeured Mercedes-Benz, I found everything irresistible—even the education in balance.
The weather for October was warm and clear. From the top of the cathedral’s bell tower, I could see where I was going: the Dolomites. Snow-capped and majestic, they rippled across a blue sky. Below us, next door, was a garden. Matteo, tall and lithe at 28, led me downstairs and through its gate. There, amid a moss-covered statuary, was the reason I had come: grapevines.
Matteo’s father, Gianluca Bisol, who lends the family name to their famous finely made proseccos, had discovered these plants over a decade ago. The golden-hued grape was Venice’s native dorona, likely a cross between Soave’s garganega and a table variety. It is practically amphibian; isolated to the islands for centuries, it can withstand the lagoon’s frequent flooding—to a point. A catastrophic swamping in 1966 destroyed much of the stock. It survived in yards like this very one, which Gianluca uncovered, taking clippings to replant a historic vineyard on the island of Mazzorbo.
Called Venissa Fondamenta (Santa Caterina, 3, Mazzorbo; 39-04/1527-2281; venissa.it), that vineyard, its inn, and its Michelin-starred restaurant anchor the Bisols’ new endeavor, the Venetian Wine Experience. Having grown grapes for 21 generations, the family has branched out into travel, first with a bed and breakfast that they ran in the prosecco hills from 2005 to 2012, and now with this project. Besides Venissa and the Bisols’ flagship vineyard in the Venetian Prealps, the tour traverses two other wineries in which the family has a stake: Maeli, in the ancient Euganean Hills south of Padova, where a young woman named Elisa Dilavanzo creates a sparkling from the indigenous yellow muscat, and Vigna 1350, where veteran winemaker Fabrizio Zardini grows Europe’s highest grapes with a view of the ski lifts above Cortina d’Ampezzo.
In these choices, Gianluca has sought adventure. But dramatic scenery notwithstanding, I witnessed the quest for a sublime equilibrium everywhere—between acid and sugar, between phenolics and fruit, between intensity and drinkability. The wines I tasted were great partners for traditional Venetian food: risottos, polentas, mushrooms, seafood, and game.
I started feasting right off the plane. My driver, a burly man named Renato, swept me to the spa town of Montegrotto Terme in the Euganean Hills. There, at the 16th-century Villa dei Vescovi (Via dei Vescovi, 4, Padova; 39-04/9993-0473; visitfai.it), once the summer home of the Bishop of Padova, Dilavanzo was hosting the first ever Maeli Chef Cup, a battle of the appetizers named for her winery, and essentially a very clever ploy to promote her signature Fior d’Arancio Spumante as an aperitif. And why not? Blossomy yet brisk with a mineral backbone, the semi-sweet sparkling handily juggled the contrasting flavors and textures (sweet and salty, creamy and crunchy) that jumpstart a meal. I roved the tables: a toasted cheese, pear, and baccalà sandwich; a salted apple biscuit with duck and smoked chestnut cream; and, by Luca Tomasicchio of Padova’s renowned Tola Rasa (Via Vicenza, 7, Padova; 39-0/4972-3032; tolarasa.it), the decadent winner—a white chocolate and foie gras lollipop wrapped, for bright balance, in passion fruit leather.
Full, drunk, and jet-lagged, I thought it was time for a juxtaposing dip. The vast, magnesium-and potassium-treated pool at Relilax Hotel Terme Miramonti (Piazza Roma, 19, Montegrotto Terme; 39-04/9891-1755; relilax.com), the proper European sanatorium where I was staying, proved to be the appropriate corrective. I paddled about, watching black-and-white hooded crows swoop as the sun set behind cone-shaped hills. Revivified, I dressed for dinner.
Gianluca, his sweet expression punctuated by a tiny moustache, ferried me to that evening’s restaurant, Antica Trattoria Ballotta (Via Carromatto, 2, Torreglia; 39-04/9521-2970; ballotta.it), which has served weary travelers like me since 1605. Dilavanzo, dark-haired and demure, sat across from me at a huge, wooden table. We drank her Bianco Infinito; an aromatic blend of yellow muscat and chardonnay with an herbaceous finish. Truffle risotto was served. Someone said, “It exalts the wine.” They were right; fragrance met fragrance, earth met bud. Dilavanzo is not herself an oenologist, but she knows what she wants, and she gets it. “You are just a sommelier and don’t know anything,” an oenologist who worked for the previous owner of Maeli had once told her; with Bisol’s help, she bought her boss, and that oenologist, out.
The waiter poured Maeli’s D+ 2011 vintage; an intoxicating 70/20/10 blend of merlot, cab, and barbera, its name signifies “even more.” After ten months in the barrel, and at 15.5 percent alcohol, it’s big and tannic. “Well-educated wines are not my favorite,” said Dilavanzo. Still, the drink had a brightness that kept it from bombing out. It was nice with a livery pigeon, but I felt as cooked as the bird by then. Following an off-the-cuff history lesson about the pre-Roman Euganei tribe after which the hills are named—“Phoenicians. Venetians. They’re all the same,” someone said—I made my good nights.
The next day I stood on a Maeli hilltop, waves of pines, vines, olives, and oranges receding into a view of the sea. Here, I met the irreverent Dilavanzo’s pious side. “It is the Madonna of Alpini, for the soldiers who fought in the mountains in the First World War,” she said, peering into a shrine built before rows of merlot. “I was happy to find it here. I always need a connection to God.”
It must have been a wine-loving deity who had spilled the ocean here eons ago, and sent volcanoes coursing from the seabed. The calcareous soils; sea breezes that whisk mildew away; even the blackberries lining the drive up to the tasting room shape Maeli wines—especially since Dilavanzo stopped spraying the vineyards when she took charge. “For me, we have to do it as natural as possible,” she explains.
That means sometimes losing the battle to nature—like 2012, when the boars ate all the pinot noir grapes. “They are clever,” Dilavanzo sighed. “One animal holds the electric fence down with a hoof, and they all come in.” Our tasting room lunch included her revenge: medallion of wild boar.
By the following afternoon, I was in the lagoon with Matteo. The six-room inn he oversees is modern and spare, serene enough to soothe any traveler who fought the crowds in Piazza San Marco. Not that I bothered with Venice proper—the northern islands have a sleepy allure all of their own. Within centuries-old walls left over from a medieval monastery, Venissa boasts a true Venetian garden, where elderly locals tend artichoke patches that grow alongside the two acres of vines.
But there’s also plenty to do. I made a fool of myself attempting to row a gondola with the regatta champs from the neighboring island of Burano. It’s not unlike stirring a pot, only the spoon is ten feet long, and you’re using muscles you heretofore were unacquainted with. I strolled Burano’s canal sides, where Technicolor rows of fishermen’s homes looked like a bowl full of candy.
I climbed aboard the 70-year-old Eolo, the last of the large flat-bottomed Venetian sailboats. As egrets alit on sandbars, the vessel slid past stilted fishing shacks, idle nets hoisted above the water like hammocks. We disembarked so Matteo could show me the private island of Santa Cristina, where the Bisols farm 50-year-old camrénère and merlot vines to make their chocolate-and-brambles Rosso Venissa wine, and you can drop $27,100 to live for a week in the lavish villa, like a trust-fund Robinson Crusoe.
And I ate. Venissa’s four chefs work like independent contractors; no one is in charge, and each tackles a separate course. “Their characters are all different,” Matteo said, as we sat down to dinner in Venissa’s glass-walled dining room. “But they have to find the balance between their individual dishes.” Veal liver ravioli in a sunset-orange pool of carrot juice; turbot on cauliflower purée garnished with salty lagoon herbs; pork cooked sous vide for 36 hours before roasting, served with a turnip cream—all of their platings were painterly, every flavor intense.
Macerated with 24 days’ skin contact, Venissa, the property’s signature wine, is intense, too. But its vibrant acidity buoys its richness. Matteo poured me the 2011—honey then apricot, plum then anise, and a briny, bitter-orange finish—and the 2010 launch vintage—riper, with chocolate and coffee aromas and loads of lemon and apricot. I wished I could have snuck a bottle of each into my suitcase. Small-lot and hand-numbered, the unique 500-milliliter bottles are fitting souvenirs of an iconoclastic vineyard. The clincher? The labels are handmade from gold leaf on neighboring Murano. It’s a dying art. “But,” Matteo shrugged, “we are buying 4,000 gold leaves each year, so we do our part.”
The Trip to Take in 2016: “The Venetian Wine Experience” Part 2
An hour’s drive north from Venice, the cliffsides multiplied, and the larders took on an Alpine feel. I was on the second leg of the Venetian Wine Experience. I had dined on seared goose breast and perfumed muscat wines in the Euganean Hills. I had savored five kinds of fish and five types of mushrooms in a soup on a boat in the Venetian lagoon, where the dorona wine tasted of salted overripe stone fruit. Now, the dining turned hearty, but the wines, as a counterpoint, were brisk and bubbling.
Not that there isn’t diversity in the cellars at the Dolomites’ feet. Here, restaurants sit on dusty stashes that have rested for half a century. At Locanda Ristorante da Lino (Via Roma, 19, Treviso; 39-0/4388-2150; locandadalino.it), in the village of Solighetto, chef-owner Marco Toffolin led me down into the cellar where he blew cobwebs from a Cordero di Montezemolo Barolo that was only four years younger than me. (A 1967, if you must know. It reminded me of the dry Portuguese wine Madeira, with a figgy depth that climbed toward a surprisingly pert finish.)
What I mostly drank in the foothills, though, sparkled. This was the Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG region, Bisol’s own stomping grounds. Whether prosecco or méthode champenoise, sparkling wines reinvigorated the palate after game-heavy dishes. A classic-method Bisol Talento 2003, with a soft bubble and a dried citrus taste, elegantly handled Toffolin’s buttery, garlicky snails. Because I knew the preservative-free prosecco wouldn’t leave my head pounding, I sipped Bisol’s breezy, zero-sulfites Jeio NoSO2 with roast duck with chestnuts, mushrooms, and polenta.
And to go with a fresh ricotta torta: Bisol Prosecco Cartizze 2014. Labeled “dry,”—which actually means semi-sweet, as opposed to “extra dry” or even drier “brute”—it had a bristling acidity that masked its 22 grams of residual sugar. That and its layered flavors of pineapple and passion fruit, vanilla and lemon chiffon, reflected its pedigree. Its glera grapes were from Cartizze, the DOCG’s steep, green sweet spot.
“The worst thing is when you drop a basket,” said Stefano Marangon, Bisol’s export manager, when I met him on the hill the following day. He dug in the heels on gorgeous Italian shoes and leaned over to peer at less-prestigious valley vineyards below. “You have to go down and scoop it up.”
Following suit in my not-as-nice shoes, I felt like Jill to his Jack. A 750-foot tumble through 265 acres of vines, Cartizze represents only 1/400th of prosecco produced, but its exclusivity isn’t the draw: it’s the land’s fortuitous terroir. Whereas other hills orient east to west, Cartizze faces south, bringing lengthy sunlight and drying breezes. Humidity rolls off its marine-sediment shoulders, and day-to-night temperature swings accentuate glera’s fruit-forward aromas.
That’s one reason that charmat, or tank fermentation, is favored here. The grape’s natural fragrance doesn’t compete with yeast, as it does in bottle-fermented champagne. “Yeast is another protagonist,” Gianluca told me over dinner. “If you put them together, it is difficult to make the balance. In Italy we say, ‘Like two roosters in same space.’”
We were dining at La Corte (Via Roma, 24, Follina; 39-04/3897-1761; lacortefollina.com), the Michelin-starred restaurant at Hotel Villa Abbazia (Piazza IV Novembre, 3, Follina; 39-04/3897-1277; hotelabbazia.com), my charming if knickknack-heavy base in the town of Follina. There, a crystal-clear guinea fowl consommé, poured over seared polenta and rich guinea fowl tortellini, was a culinary high note of the trip.
Bready and smoky, but with an apple-like acidity, classic-method Elise had the gravitas to celebrate such a graceful dish. The wine is named after the founder of Bisol, whose vaulted cave is carved into a Valdobiadenne hillside. I drank it again at a local favorite, Ristorante Da Gigetto (Via Alcide De Gasperi, Treviso; 39-04/3896-0020; ristorantedagigetto.it), but not before a tour of the restaurant’s impressive cellar, Bisol Crede Brut in hand. Bone-dry and shimmering, the prosecco primed my palate for the chicken, rabbit, beef, and porcini ragù to come, though I could have stayed below ground surveying old barberas all day. On the cellar wall was a photograph of a 1960s harvest, oxen dragging a grape-filled basket down a precipitous incline.
The picture felt emblematic of this DOCG. It’s an old-fashioned, nose-to-the-grindstone place where, despite the devastation of two world wars and the difficulty of the hillside farming, people celebrate with rib-sticking meals and bubbles. The importance of prosecco here cannot be over-exaggerated. Hotel Villa Abbazia’s innkeeper, Giovanni Zanon, calls these foothills “Proseccoshire.” And, whether apocryphal or not, the story is told that Gianluca’s father, Antonio, used prosecco as a weapon against Nazi occupiers, getting them drunk on the stuff before “getting rid of them.”
The route out of Proseccoshire to my final destination, the tony ski town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, was the product of the First World War. A series of single-lane switchbacks that zigzag 2,316 feet upwards, the San Boldo Pass was built in less than three months by Austro-Hungarian soldiers and plenty of conscripted locals. From afar, it looks like a mall escalator, with cars. It has been called one of the world’s most dangerous roads.
I was grateful for Renato, my nerves-of-steel driver, who maneuvered out of those hairpins and into the cold mountain air. Pines, onion domes, and jagged Dolomites punctured the sky. Chalets sported gabled roofs and decorative, wooden balconies. I was tempted to sing “The Lonely Goatherd“ from The Sound of Music. After all, we weren’t far from Austria.
Nearly ten miles south of Cortina, we stopped for lunch at Ristorante Al Capriolo (Via Nazionale, 108; 39-04/3548-9207; alcapriolo.it), where proprietor Massimiliano Gregori was dressed like Georg von Trapp in a collarless trachten coat. A taxidermied menagerie had the run of the place: tall-eared squirrels, roe deer, hawks.
“Did you shoot any of these?” I asked Gregori.
“Yes!” he answered, cheerily. A photograph showed his grandfather sitting in the snow, rifle in hand, laughing beneath a Tyrolean hat.
The food was beautiful: tagliatelle with herbaceous venison ragù; a satisfying braise of mottled bortolli beans and famed Vinigo cabbage; aromatic roast quail, the leg stuffed with liver and the breast herb-crusted; hay-smoked prime rib with local pine pesto. Bisol’s champagne-method Private Cartizze matched the dimension of the dishes—it was yeasty, but contrary to what Gianluca had said, the tropical and floral aromas of the glera came through.
After such a meal, I would have liked to stew in the bath in my chalet-style digs at the Rosapetra Spa Resort (Località Zuel di Sopra, 1, Cortina; 39-04/3686-9062; rosapetracortina.it), a sleek destination whose delicious restaurant serves a dioramic “Tribute to the Dolomites” dessert, mountains rendered in chocolate and meringue. My room’s wooden tub looked like a grape-stomping vat. I had consumed enough grapes to feel like one myself.
But there was no rest for the over-fed; I had a date with Fabrizio Zardini. For 35 years, Zardini vinified wines all over Italy. Now he has returned home to Cortina. Vigna 1350, the plot he’s established with vine expert Francesco Anaclerio and backing from Gianluca Bisol, for whom he is planting more vines, is set in a forest clearing in a national park.
“It is a bit wild, but we are ten minutes from town,” Zardini said shortly after my arrival. In his grey beard and feathered fedora, he looked like a true burgher as we crunched along on frozen ground. Zardini calls this vineyard “more than organic.” With no chemicals, tillage, or irrigation, it’s a quest to see what the grapes will do naturally at 4,430 feet. This close to the sun, UV rays kill off most diseases. Plus, he says, “The vines don’t mind the cold. The only difficult thing is the short period for vegetation. But two years ago, we produced some wine, so it is possible.”
We nestled into a rustic cabin overlooking his grapes. “Sometimes I sleep here. At night you just hear animals and nothing else but wind,” he said, as he pulled smoke from an enormous Tyrolean pipe. “I think about what this was when the sea was here. Three hundred million years ago, all this was coral reef.”
That mind-blowing fact underscored the calcareous advantage of the Venetian soil. But there are other benefits here, including revved-up polyphenols. Zardini poured a Moravian varietal called palava. It had the aromatic punch of the gewürztraminer it was descended from, with loads of minerality, a touch of pine, and something else—aging potential. “This characteristic,” Zardini lectured me, “comes from the UV rays. One kilometer closer to the sun makes a difference in the long finish typical of sweet polyphenols. It changes the metabolism of the plant.” He had chosen this and a red grape for their short maturation period. Andrè, a Franconian cross between lemberger and pinot saint laurent, teetered in deliciously between acid, spice, and grape-skin tannins, accentuated by the sun.
Zardini is sanguine about the potential of growing such varietals organically here. Taking up the theme I had pondered for the entire trip, he sounded like a mountain shaman: “There is a natural balance in the wine. You can’t build this balance. You must find it out. You must learn to work with physical things.” He gestured toward the vines just outside the open cabin door: “If you feel this wood, it is warm now. Then the sun goes down, and it is cold.” He cut a hunk of puccia, a cumin-laced rye bread laced that he put out with the wines. “What the plants feel, we feel.”
I looked out at the vines and snow-white summits. I had come to Veneto to see what the Bisols were doing with this whole wine travel thing. Glutton that I am, I’d been excited by the prospect of all the eating and drinking. But I realized now that I had been ravenous for experience as much as flavor. Therein lies the balance in great food adventures: The eyes, stomach, and mind all get to feast. I stuck my nose into a glass of palava. If the plants feel the same as us, I thought, then right now they must be feeling darned good.
Image Credits: Mattia Mionetto