In early autumn, I love exploring the area around San Francesco della Vigna. On my way to this church and monastery, I walk towards Fondamente Nuove, enjoying the clear sky and view stretching towards the Alpine mountain tops that you can make out in the distance. After all, October is considered the month of the painters and it looks so crisp and clear, especially from a place like the one you can see below. This is Giardino Contarini dal Zaffo, a garden echoing forgotten stories about gatherings and wine.
It was a favorite retreat of Venetian painters like Titian and Tintoretto whose homes were located nearby. So going for a walk here made me think and explore the history of Venetian wine.
It was a garden in which the painters used to spend whole days and nights in summer and fall. During harvest time, this garden was lush with grapes, mele di cotogna (quinces) and mulberries. Forgotten fruit in many parts of the world, but they are certainly alive in our Venetian family recipes. We still use fruit like quinces and mulberries in cakes and cookies and to make jams and syrups.
So here I’m going for a walk in what was wine country in Venice called le Sette Isole di San Francesco della Vigna – the Seven Islands of Saint Francis. Vines were cultivated also to the south, in the area later called San Marco. Had you come to Venice in the year 500 AD, Piazza San Marco, Campo San Zaccaria, San Benedeto, San Moisé and San Samuele would have been covered with vines. It was home to local varieties like ribolle and vernacce.
In Venice, Franciscan monks (frati minori) excelled in cultivating local wine. In a special place and orchard garden, by the way. Legend has it that Saint Mark lived in the gardens of San Francesco della Vigna for some time to shelter and recover from a storm which had surprised him while crossing the Lagoon called I Sette Mari at that time.
There is still a chapel dedicated to Saint Mark located in the far end of this orchard garden. Marco Ziani left his garden to the Franciscans in 1253 and since then, vines have been grown there alongside lush kitchen gardens and aromatic herb plots.
Just like they did for spices, Venetians developed a trading monopole for wine originating in the Levant. The merchants kept prices high because demand was extraordinary.
They created an artificial shortage of wine because they wanted to brand wine as a sacred cult drink, shrouded in a mysterious halo and stories from far away lands. Call Venetians ancient story tellers :-) and they used this art for marketing purposes too.
Right after the fall of the Roman empire in 476 AD, Venetians benefited from the void in Europe. They set up trading routes with the Levant and enriched life in Europe with fairy-tale products from those far away lands. Venetians had come to the right place (Byzantium) at the right time. Later, wine became very popular in Venice because doctors considered it an efficient remedy to fight off and prevent catching the bubonic plague ! And it spread to the starving countries of Europe in the 15th century that were also suffering from the effects of the little ice age.
Venetian merchants controlled wine deliveries from Spice Country that is the Levant. Wine arrived in Venice from the Greek islands, Romania, the Dalmatian coast and the southern Mediterranean shores. From Istria, where Venetians in 1388 started cultivating Malvasia istriana. Malvasia became a favorite wine in Venice and spread across Europe from there. Once there was a refreshing crema malvasia e lavanda, a Malvasia-and-lavender-flavored dessert cream!
In order to prevent wine abuse amongst the population, the Republic of Venice kept prices high. Wine was a special treat served during banquets and official dinners hosted by the Venetian government and offered to their stunned visitors.
But soon, luxury vines were cultivated in the Lagoon, and a favorite of these was called Dorona, the golden grape. Finally, around the 14th century, wine was sold at the bacari (wine taverns) located around the Rialto Market
Dorona vines were rediscovered by chance amongst the blackberry shrubs in a wild garden on Torcello. The Bisol Family started their experiment to cultivate these vines on an estate created on the island Mazzorbo, which is called Venissa. It has been a success and you can see the results below :-)
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So our “Wine Country” is located in the mysterious northern waters of the northern Lagoon. If you want to read more about this area, I’ve written this blog post.
The Doge’s Golden Wine, Dorona, now also grows on Torcello and even on San Michele. Originally, San Michele was a monastery and garden island and not the cemetery of Venice. Its northeastern part is still dedicated to growing vines amongst others, while the cemetery is located more to the south on the twin island San Cristoforo.
And of course, wine was used extensively in the kitchen, to flavor soup and rice in particular and to enhance the flavor of the spices. For example, Dorona and saffron work well together to create an extraordinary dish, a very tasty and velvety risotto.
PS. I’ve included a few images posted by Venetian and Venetophile Instagramers. Click on their names to view and follow their Instagram accounts.