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Italy’s urban vineyards – a marriage of past and present

Decanter meets the people behind three of Italy’s urban vineyard projects and discovers how history is shaping the future.

Below are three exciting urban vineyard projects to be found in Italy: Vigna della Regina in Turin, Venissa in Venice, and La Vigna di Leonardo in Milan. In reality, there are far more urban vineyard projects than this, some of which are represented by the Urban Vineyards Association (including Vigna della Regina and La Vigna di Leonardo in this article).

The Urban Vineyards Association was born in 2018 with the aim of protecting the rural, historical and natural heritage represented by vineyards in metropolitan areas and, from a culture and tourism point of view, making them productive for the community and for the future – all while respecting the environment. It comprises 11 vineyards spanning Italy, France and the USA – ambitious projects that go beyond a simple bottle of wine.

Vigna della Regina – Turin

Vigna della Regina (the ‘Queen’s Vineyard’) was created at the beginning of the 17th century for Prince Maurizio of Savoy as part of the park and gardens of Villa Regina – now a UNESCO World Heritage site boasting a stunning backdrop of city views within walking distance of Turin’s historical centre.

‘The idea to create a group of urban vineyards worldwide started with my family’s project in Turin,’ says Luca Balbiano, president of the Urban Vineyard Association. Noting that the wine world is often seen as an exclusive club, he adds: ‘We want to show, hands-on, what making wine is all about.’ Without moving from the city, inhabitants can understand the work involved in a vineyard – working with, and not against, nature.

Destroyed by a bombing raid during World War II and abandoned to its destiny, the vineyard was brought back to life through a renovation project in 2003. In cooperation with the Balbiano winery, over 2,700 Freisa vines were planted on a 0.73ha plot. The first official harvest took place in 2009 and since 2011, Vigna della Regina has been included in the Freisa di Chieri DOC. The wine is rich and structured with soft, ripe tannins and a sweet spice character: perfect for pairing with Piedmont’s tasty local cuisine. 

‘In 2018, I asked myself if I was the only crazy person making wine in a city, and I googled “urban vineyards” in all the languages I could think of; I found out there are more crazy people out there,’ laughs Balbiano.

He adds: ‘We want to share art, culture, tradition, sustainability, beauty and social aspects. One of the fundamental points is that our members have a strong link to the local community – and incredibly enough, a bottle of wine can represent all of this.’

Balbiano believes that a vineyard is a perfect symbol of a renaissance. ‘It dies and relives every year. It is also a way to remind our community that even the craziest project can come true, and secondly, these vineyards are reconnecting the community with nature,’ he states.

Luca Balbiano Vigna della Regina

Luca Balbiano in Vigna della Regina overlooking Turin. Credit: Urban Vineyards Association

Venissa – Venice

‘In 2002, my father visited the island of Mazzorbo in Venice, close to Burano, and saw some vines. He became curious and knocked on the door, and an old lady opened, showing him some old vines of a forgotten variety called Dorona; that is how our project in the lagoon started,’ says Matteo Bisol.

The Bisol family has a long history of producing Prosecco in Valdobbiadene since the 1500s. There was no doubt that ambitions for this 0.8ha urban vineyard in Venice were high.

Bisol is 35 years old but he remembers with a big smile how he helped his father by going around Venice by boat and bicycle, asking people about local wine production. He and his father tried to learn more about the mysterious grape variety that survived in the salty Venetian soil.

‘We managed to find 80 vines with Dorona. The inhabitants were happy to help because, historically, wine production was important to the poor islands on the outskirts of the lagoon. A reality that disappeared with disastrous flooding in 1966,’ Bisol explains.

The city of Venice is protected from high tides by the MOSE walls – flood barriers in use since October 2020. The major challenge today is the salinity of the soil, but the Dorona variety has developed protection against it.

‘The variety is related to Garganega and Trebbiano Toscano. It is golden in colour and very sensitive to the environment where it is grown. We make a very neutral vinification in concrete and with skin contact. Here in Venice, for obvious reasons, it is not possible to have an underground cellar, so we need tannins to protect the wine from oxidation.’ The wine is golden in colour, rich and generous but still elegant, with a citrus and nut character.

Around the vineyard, the Bisol family has created a resort, Venissa, with a one-star Michelin restaurant alongside contemporary Osteria, working with local produce and keeping local food traditions. The resort also puts great effort into waste reduction, self-sufficiency, local sourcing, seasonality and recycling.

‘The resort is completely plastic free and rotates around sustainability – tourism is important, but the city must decide what kind of tourism is good for Venice to keep its outstanding beauty. We feel the responsibility to be a part of this mission, and our urban vineyard has made it possible,’ Bisol says.

Venissa Vineyard

Venissa’s vineyard is located in one of Venice’s lagoons. Credit: Venissa

La Vigna di Leonardo – Milan

La Vigna di Leonardo (‘Leonardo’s vineyard’) in the centre of Milan has an incredible story connected to the genius of Leonardo da Vinci. ‘The vineyard located at Palazzo Atellani was the payment from Duke Ludovico Sforza to Leonardo da Vinci for painting The Last Supper, housed in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, practically on the other side of the street,’ says Alessandro Cotroneo, president of La Vigna di Leonardo and it’s on-site museum.

Sforza, the Duke of Milan, transformed the court of Milan into one of the main cultural centres in Europe. Leonardo Da Vinci became a court painter, and in 1495 he started to paint his version of The Last Supper – one of the art world’s great masterpieces.

‘Leonardo never abandoned the vineyard in Milan, and he regained it after the confiscation of the French in 1519. On his deathbed, he mentioned the vineyard in his will, leaving a part to a servant and another to Salaì, his life companion,’ Cotroneo explains.

La Vigna di Leonardo was rediscovered in 1922 but then destroyed during World War II. In 2007, the Portaluppi Foundation started a project with Professor Attilio Scienza, one of the most prominent experts on vine DNA, from the University of Milan. ‘After years of study, we got the result, showing that the grape used was the aromatic Malvasia di Candia. Finally, we brought Leonardo’s Vineyard back to life,’ says Cotroneo.

The vineyard is tiny, only producing around 300 bottles of wine per vintage, the first of which was in 2018. ‘The number of bottles is not important, but more so the values that they represent,’ asserts Cotroneo. The wine is auctioned and the money is given to an association to help prevent childhood leukaemia.

‘Our mission, exactly as the Urban Vineyard Association, is to remind all of us of the importance of taking care of our world, that we are just passing by, nothing is forever, and to remain humble and not live with more than necessary,’ says Cotroneo.

What has surprised Cotroneo the most since the opening of Palazzo Atellani and Leonardo’s Vineyard to the public? ‘All the people ask if they can help us with the garden. I think it is beautiful and very fulfilling,’ he says, adding: ‘We want to meet in person, tell our story, make our visitors smile, and share the beauty with as many people as we can.’

La Vigna di Leonardo Milano

La Vigna di Leonardo, Milan. Credit: Urban Vineyards Association

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