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The secret life of Venetian Friars’ hidden vineyards

PUBLISHED: 15:00 16 November 2016

Archant

The 17th century Carmelite’s garden is one of many long lost Venetian vineyards in the middle of a revival, for the sake of wine education

Tourists arriving at Venice’s incongruously modernist railway station have no idea of how close they are - literally - to the roots of the city’s history.

Behind the high stone wall alongside the station lies a vineyard.

The vines tended there today by the city’s tiny community of “Barefoot” Carmelite friars are mostly too young yet to bear a generous harvest, but they link back more than a thousand years, to when the mainlanders fled from invading barbarians to the marshes of the Venetian lagoon and planted vines for the wines so essential to their lifestyle for centuries to come.

The Carmelites’ garden, dating from the mid 17th century, is one of several long-lost vineyards on Venice itself and its neighbouring islands that are currently being revived as research projects or sometimes commercial initiatives, aiming to recover ancient grape varieties, assess their modern potential and increase vine biodiversity in the broader Veneto region.

Though halved in size by the railway development, and only slowly emerging from long neglect into its original symbolically planned mix of vineyard, orchard, vegetable plot and herb and flower garden, it’s a delightful place, a hidden reminder of Venice centuries ago.

Earlier this autumn some 300 kilos of grapes were picked there and turned into 250 litres of wine by students from the wine college in mainland Conegliano. Friends and the friars shared the bottles.

“We decided to begin the real production next year,” said Carlo Favero, director of the Venezia wine consortium, which is much involved in the project as part of its broad old-vine research. “But we’re not entirely interested in selling the wine - this project has a scientific, cultural and educational value.”

Micro-vinification of the oldest varieties is planned, better to understand them and perhaps develop their potential. Watch this space...

Far inland and north-eastwards is another place I’d never considered as a wine-making mecca.

A short conversation - and, more importantly, a tasting - recently put paid to that. The history of pinot noir in Moravia isn’t quite as long as that of Venice’s ancient varieties, but the grape has been there since 1348, when the innovatory King Charles IV introduced vines from France. And it is a modern commercial success.

The elegant, burgundian-stye wines I tasted came from Stapleton & Springer, an organic estate founded in 2004 by Craig Stapleton, former US Ambassador to the Czech Republic, his lawyer brother Benjamin and Moravian winemaker Jara Springer. There’s no space here to tell their full, fascinating story, but the results are splendid (from £13.75, leaandsandeman.co.uk).

If the Venetian monastery garden initiative produces results in any way approaching these, repeating vinous history will bring further modern pleasures.

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