Venice is bliss for wine lovers. Driving is out of the question for a start, and the day is traditionally punctuated by breaks at the city’s many bacari (wine bars) for a small glass with cicchetti, the bite-sized snacks that Venetians do so well. The wine choice is largely local, popular varieties including the fruity Manzoni Bianco, dry Tai (also known as Friulano or Sauvignon Vert) and juicy red Raboso. The role of the landlord, or oste, is even more central here than elsewhere – and be they brusque, friendly or eccentric, they’re sure to leave an impression.
Together with its outlying islands, Venice has a deeply ingrained winemaking history, and grapes continue to grow in gardens and courtyards. You can even eat under vines at restaurants such as Corte Sconta (see No3, below) and Pizzeria alla Strega, where a rare Bacò vine provides a courtyard canopy.
Twelve years ago, the Consorzio Vini Venezia launched a project to safeguard the city’s forgotten vines, unearthing an incredible 70 varieties, 18 of which now grow in a vineyard behind the 17th-century Carmelitani Scalzi church. The vines are part of the walled Giardino Mistico, laid out in seven areas representing the order’s teachings and also home to olives, woodland and herbs such as Melissa moldavica, used for a herbal tonic made here since 1710. The vines include six types of Malvasia, once so important locally that the most prestigious wine shops of 16th-century Venice were known as malvasie, specialising in wines from Greece.
Malvasia Istriana, together with Glera, now grows at another vineyard, the city’s oldest, bequeathed in 1253 to Franciscans who built their San Francesco della Vigna church around it. Since 2019, the vineyard has been owned by the Santa Margherita group (famed for its Prosecco and Pinot Grigio), which is also restoring the original chapel. The first wines should be released in 2023.
No stay in Venice is complete without a trip to the islands, especially the trio where the lagoon’s first, 5th-century settlers lived: Torcello, home to the famous Locanda Cipriani and a Byzantine basilica with glorious mosaics; Burano with its brightly painted houses; and peaceful Mazzorbo linked by bridge to Burano.
It’s here on Mazzorbo that the Bisol family runs the lovely Venissa wine resort (see below). Surrounded by sea, with a clever drainage system to protect the vines, the resort’s walled vineyard of traditional but rare Dorona vines produces two intense, deep-golden wines made with extended skin contact, including Venissa, sold in 50cl bottles with gold-leaf labels (2014, £150 Fine & Rare).
Astonishing at any time of year, Venice’s charm is only enhanced by winter mists when the welcoming glow of cosy interiors becomes magical, even more so during carnival (next one, 11-21 February 2023), when curiously costumed figures are a regular sight. Wander the city, explore the quiet side-canals and embrace the voluptuous Venetian hospitality when you come upon another wonderful bacaro.
My top 10 in Venice
1. Cantina Do Mori
Step back in time at Venice’s oldest bacaro, dating from 1462. Order a local white, such as Manzoni Bianco, Verdiso or Tai, at the long wooden bar and perch on a stool to ponder which of the array of cicchetti bites to try next: perhaps the typical creamy baccalà mantecato cod with polenta, the baby octopus or salami crostini. Sestiere San Polo 429
One of Venice’s best-loved historical bacari is also a well-stocked wine shop specialising in bottles from northeastern Italy. Join the locals for a glass and selection of delicious cicchetti such as octopus and celery, cuttlefish and samphire or the traditional sarde in saor (marinated sardines). Standing room only, but you can perch out on the canalside, not far from the San Trovaso gondola boatyard.
3. Corte Sconta
A menu of top-quality seasonal seafood such as fried soft-shell crabs, monkfish, tuna or bream, and delicious homemade bread and pasta, in a charming location with a simple interior and a wonderful 150-year-old Glera vine providing a canopy for the internal courtyard garden. The wine list presents an ever-changing selection of labels from small-scale ethical producers selected by owner Marco Proietto.
4. La Sete
Just off the bar-lined Fondamenta Misericordia and behind the same management’s Da Rioba restaurant, this cosy, recently opened brick and wood-beamed bar specialises in artisan wines from all over the world – about 10 are available by the glass at any time, always including something local. Owner Tommaso Milner’s family land on Sant’Erasmo island also provides fresh veg for the dozen other restaurants of the island’s Osti in Orto horticultural project.
5. Mercato di Rialto
Take the Santa Sofia traghetto (gondola ferry) from the Cannaregio district to this historic market. This is where restaurant chefs source the freshest fish and vegetables, including the celebrated artichokes from Sant’Erasmo, the island known as Venice’s vegetable garden. While here, shop for regional cheeses such as Morlacco and Asiago at Casa del Parmigiano and stop for wine with mini panini next door at tiny Al Mercà.
Take a seat in the cosy interior of this upmarket version of the typical bacaro and order choice charcuterie from small producers, Prosecco-infused or grape skin-aged cheeses and something from the small daily menu, which might include scampi in vermouth or pasta with mullet roe. Ask owner Giovanni about the extensive wine collection and round off with buranelli biscuits dipped in a luscious local passito.
Welcoming aromas hit you as soon as you enter the San Leonardo branch of this family-run bakery, as it’s here that the baking takes place for many of Venice’s restaurants and hotels. Try seasonal favourites such as focaccia Veneziana at Christmas, melt-in-the-mouth frittelle (fried dough balls with dried fruit) at carnival time, and simple buranelli and zaletti biscuits all year round, ideal with Verduzzo or Torcolato passito wines.
8. Trattoria “Alla Palazzina”
An atmospheric, wood-panelled space featuring a piano and a double bass, occasionally played by talented diners, and a spacious patio garden shaded by a leafy pergola make this a welcome refuge from the busy route through the Cannaregio neighbourhood. Relax over a mixed seasonal seafood starter, perhaps cuttlefish in black ink sauce or bigoli in salsa (thick spaghetti with sardines and onion), or simply stop for a drink during the afternoon.
The relaxing atmosphere on the island of Mazzorbo is even more all-enveloping here. Rare Dorona vines grow in a historic walled vineyard that’s open to all for peaceful strolls and shares the space with pensioners’ allotments, the chef’s garden and a landmark bell tower. Eat at the one-star Michelin restaurant or informal Osteria, and book to stay at one of its five charming rooms overlooking the lagoon or the vineyard.
10. Vini da Gigio
Paolo Lazzari’s thousand-strong wine collection features about 40 available by the glass, and his sister Laura serves tasty seasonal specialities from the open kitchen. Favourites include crab risotto, fresh artichokes and asparagus from Sant’Erasmo island, duck and smoked spaghetti carbonara with tuna. A truly warm, friendly welcome, with centuries-old columns and beams sets the scene for memorable meals.