Venissa: the unique terroir of Venice’s flooded vineyards

The precariousness of Venice’s future in the face of rising water levels has never felt more immediate than this week, with record water levels and resulting damage leading to a state of emergency being declared. Whilst flooding is a fact of nature for Venissa’s vineyards, this week’s events underscore how fragile this winemaking endeavour really is.

With the newest releases from Venissa, Venice’s lagoon vineyard, are about to be released, we caught up with winemaker Roberto Cipresso to speak about working this unique terroir and re-discovering the special characteristics of an all but extinct variety.

F+R: You have spoken about the special meeting of grape variety and terroir in the Venissa vineyards – what is it that makes these so uniquely suited to each other and how does that special relationship translate in the glass?

Roberto Cipresso: Dorona is not an aromatic grape variety, in our opinion this is great because we want the wine to talk about our terroir. With its structure, however, Dorona does bring an immense aging potential, resulting in a wine that will live for decades. The terroir is very special, only 80cm under the surface, the soil is saturated with salt water. According to the expert who made the soil analysis, it is even a miracle that a vineyard can grow here, because the sodium level on the soil is more than twice as high as what is considered the limit for viticulture. Another unique aspect is not the soil composition, but the environment around the vines, with shells, samphire and other lagoon herbs growing around the vines.

When people first encounter Venissa Bianco, what is their impression? As a wine somewhat defying conventional categories, how do you explain the wine to them?

Venissa is a wine that does not easily fit into any category, it is a skin contact wine with the elegance which is not usual in this category. It’s a wine that excites for its ability to be unique and to evoke the history of these islands. It’s a wine inspired by the traditional local practices and made with the benefit of modern knowledge.

We have spoken about Venissa Bianco’s ageing potential. How have you experienced this and how do you see the vintages evolving?

When we were looking for the grape variety we met Gastone, a 70 year old farmer who was still producing few bottles of Dorona for himself, completely handcrafted. When we saw the tools he was using we couldn’t believe that he could make a decent wine, but what a great surprise when he opened a 30 year old bottle of Dorona and the wine was still perfectly alive! This means that the grape variety has specific characteristics that allow it to age well. Today I think the 2010 and 2011 are the vintages that express their best in this moment, and the wines are growing in complexity every year.

What are the most important factors for you in the vineyard and the winery when handling this variety and producing this style?

In the viticulture we try to look after what is around the vine, we believe that is our role to give the vine the best environment to develop, so it’s a viticulture that pays more attention to the plants, animal and insect life than the vine itself. We measure the biodiversity and work every day to increase it, because we know that in a rich biodiversity no species will take over, and all will thrive.

In the winery we work with maceration during the fermentation in stainless steel and than three years of ageing in concrete. We try to the find the perfect balance between ‘doing’ and ‘not doing’, we work to avoid any faults in the wine, because when you feel the fault, even if it could be well integrated on the wine, like brett for example can be in some cases, it is still hiding the terroir which is our dogma. This is also why we decided to avoid the use of the barrique or any other intervention that could add something to the wine and mask the terroir. 

Can you tell us about the new vintages (2015 Bianco and 2012 Rosso)? How much does vintage variation affect the style of each vintage? What conditions are you looking for and how do you judge if the finished wine reflects its vintage well?

2015 is a great vintage, one of the few vintages that was great almost everywhere – very different from 2014, which made a wine that always had a great character . 2015 is more about elegance and balance. It reminded me of the 2011, these two are probably my favorite vintages so far.

2012 is a vintage of great concentration for the red, that year the birds made a “green harvest” eating half of the grapes just few weeks before the harvest, this resulted in a lower production with a great concentration, and nice aging potential for sure. This is also why we released the vintage after the 2013.

Can you tell us more about the Venissa Rosso? What is special for you about this wine?

It’s a Merlot based wine, usually I’m not a big fan of Italian Merlot but in this case I was impressed by the immense elegance and minerality that the lagoon brought to the wine.

This is now the sixth vintage release of Venissa Bianco. What have been your biggest discoveries in this time – what have you learned?

It’s not easy to vinify an unknown grape variety, I think we had a great intuition to follow the history and making a maceration on the skin to really extract the character of the grape variety and the terroir, fine tuning our winemaking procedures every year.

Venice has been hit by record high waters. What could this mean for Venissa?

It’s just been a crazy week, with the second ever highest acqua alta that flooded our vineyard, we’re worried for our vines as it was in a similar situation in 1966 that Venice lost all its vineyards. We really hope this time there is going to be a different end, otherwise this might be the only Dorona vintages that the world will ever see.

Venissa Bianco 2015 and Venissa Rosso 2012 will be released next week. Make sure to look out for the offer to secure a case of these special and rare wines.