Venice and wine, a story with deep roots. According to an ancient legend, Saint Mark was announced his burial in Venice in the place where Franciscans later would cultivate a vineyard. And that’s a great start, don’t you think?
Starting from today: what name would you give a wine?
I met Flavio Franceschet on the island of San Michele, the cemetery island in Venice. It was one of those sunny, clear, winter days in mid-February.
It was lunch time and everyone was taking a break from the hard work of trimming the vineyards, collecting dead leaves, sweeping the paved paths surrounded by the growing grass.
Under the porch of the vines in the sun, the lunch table generously displayed their own red and white wine, salami, bread and the sweet fried cakes typical of Carnival. A group of men and women of different ages were sitting together, eating, chatting and drinking.
Warmly welcomed, I also shared those nice moments. Technical discussions on how to make the vines grow. Wine tasting. A poetical dissertation on the names of wines, too. And my questions about their association, Laguna nel bicchiere, le vigne ritrovate (The Lagoon in a glass, the vineyards re-found).
Flavio had a fancy hat, he looked like a Bacchus with glasses and moustache. For years this is what he and his friends had been doing: set up organic wine production in the ancient way, promote our lagoon territory uniqueness and take care of abandoned grapevines, often in convents and monasteries. As there are less and less monks, he and his friends have discovered a different “vocation”, a passion not so much for prayers, but for these vines risking to die.
Around us you could see the ancient cloisters, the dormitory of the Camaldolese monks and the church of San Michele. And, of course, the graveyard. Not too far from us, Igor Stravinsky, Ezra Pound, Sergei Diaghilev were resting for eternity. Before 1837, however, the island was a monastery and it’s in its ancient premises that the vineyards are now reviving!
Some history about wine in Venice
Coltivar el mar e lassar star la tera: cultivate the sea and don’t bother with the land. This is the motto that governed Venice. The sea, i.e., trading, was viewed as the only economic source of wealth versus farming.
It was thanks to trading ships that Venice managed to become the capital of wine. The wine came from different and far-off countries. Especially the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea or the eastern Mediterranean area such as the islands of Cyprus and Crete. And of course, the Dalmatian coast, Apulia, the Ionic islands.
The main idea was to transform wine in a niche élite product, perfect for banquets, a sort of status symbol highly taxed and famous for its origin. So the geographical name of the producing country became a brand of quality. Does it sound familiar? This was an absolute novelty!
Venice arranged itself with guilds controlling every single step after the wine arrival at the Riva del Vino in Rialto — ehm, the only toponym I don’t need to translate when guests are visiting Venice, they all seem to know what it means 🙂 A guild for the ones selling wine, a guild for the ones pouring wine. A guild for the ones transporting wine. And of course, the ones checking the quality, checking nobody was cheating and that taxes would be paid.
Later on, starting in the 1420s, Venice conquered the mainland and the villas’ civilisation started. And with them a modern approach to farming and to viticulture developed. Surrounded by vineyards with fruit trees and fields, beautiful villas were then the centre of a modern agricultural production and not just resorts to enjoy the gentle landscape.
At the same time, starting in the 1450s the glass factories in Murano developed a production to enhance the drinking experience with creative goblets and transparency that helped you appreciate the wine color and reflections during luxurious banquets.
Is there any Venetian wine then and why would you care for it?
No matter how difficult it is, in Venice local grapevines have always been present. Not an easy task, indeed! The Venetian soil is rich in salt, the water around is brackish. If not protected against high tide, the soil can get flooded and almost become sterile.
Vineyards in fact appear in the gardens of Venice, for decoration. In lovely porches where to enjoy the shade in warm summer days. As you can see in the map of Jacopo de’ Barbari, dated 1500.
Monasteries in Venice were also surrounded by vineyards as wine would be used for the holy mass and cultivating a vineyard mirrored evangelic preaching. And vines would feature in important biblical stories, such as Noah’s drunkenness, Jesus transforming water in wine at the Wedding in Cana and of course the Last Supper. My favourite is from the Bible book Numbers where Moses sends his people to the Valley of Eshcol and there they cut down a branch with one cluster of grapes and carry it between two of them on a pole. That’s quite something! 🙂
Maybe Venice is not the Valley of Eshcol, but in a world of globalised products and flavours, it’s really important that rare grapes are not left abandoned. This is what goes on today: the biological diversity can turn into an authentic revelation, were it just brackish wine with no sulphites in exchange for unique Venetian heritage.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
Three weeks after we met, Flavio Franceschet suddenly passed away. It was March 6th, 2017. His heart failed while he was in the town hall of Venice waiting to talk about the soil on the island of San Michele. He hoped the city council would once more assign his association those vineyards that had become his true passion and are now the mission of the ones that are still here.