Vineyards at the Orto di Venezia on San Erasmo island. Photo: Courtesy of Orto di Venezia
Vineyards at the Orto di Venezia on San Erasmo island. Photo: Courtesy of Orto di Venezia

On face value Michel Thoulouze’s claim that he moved to Venice to escape the rat race sounds a little far-fetched, given that the city on any given day can feel like one of the world’s most crowded.

Until, that is, you realize exactly where it is in Venice that Thoulouze decided to live once a few decades in French show business became too much. Of the estimated 20 million visitors Venice greets each year, there are good odds supporting the fact that not too many make the effort to head out to the island of San Erasmo, about a 30-minute ferry or private boat trip across the lagoon from the centre of the city.

Consider it their loss, as San Erasmo is where Thoulouze set up his winery back around 2001 – the only one operating in Venice these days, after floods wiped the industry out in 1966 – and if you do make the effort, Thoulouze will welcome you with open arms, before opening a few bottles from his own Orto di Venezia label.

You can sit around a garden table with the lagoon stretching out before you and listen to the Thoulouze story, of how he found the run-down farmhouse, and its acreage, during one of many trips to the city in the late 1990s, and of how he immediately fell for its rustic charm. And also how the locals insisted – given San Erasmo’s history as the “garden of Venice” – that he put the land to good use.

“It’s the most arable land there is in Venice and has long been famous for its artichokes,” says Thoulouze. “So I agreed – of course – and then I looked into the history, and into what I could grow that might interest me.”

As an international center for trade down the centuries, Venetians have most often enjoyed the wine brought to them, from the rich Friuli Venezia Giulia region onshore – with its unique Schioppettino and Refosco – or from beyond. But there have been times before, most often when the city was under siege, that wine lovers here have had to fend for themselves.

Malvasia grapes on the vine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

So Thoulouze knew the climate and the soil would be alright, given recorded history and, on the encouragement of some friends from Burgundy, he decided to plant old Italian varieties, with a focus in particular on Malvasia Istriana grapes.

The results have been remarkable, with the Orto label receiving acclaim for its whites and the wine proving a perfect match for the seafood that abounds in local waters.

“It’s the terroir that makes the wine, not the man,” says Thoulouze. “When I told people what I planned to do here a lot of them didn’t say I was brave, they said I was crazy. Sometimes I think I must have been crazy, too.”

In researching the methods Venetians have used to produce wine down the centuries, Thoulouze also discovered that the lagoon itself can provide the perfect place for fermentation. So each year he fills two traditional Venetian Sandolo barges with magnums – and he sinks them (at secret locations) down on to the sand.

When the time is right, they are retrieved – complete with seaweed and sand covering – and sold. Rather quickly, as it turns out.

“They are really popular,” says Thoulouze. “It’s pretty much always been the case that people come to Venice, and they like to leave with a story to tell. That’s what our magnum’s give them.”

Where to go: Orto di Venezia, 1 Via de le Motte, San Erasmo, 30141 Venezia, Italy. Tel: +39 041 244 4021.