Is This Too Cool?

Bisol tests the limits in Europe’s highest vineyard in ultrachic Cortina d’Ampezzo

Is This <em>Too</em> Cool?
Vintner Gianluca Bisol likes to take on a challenge, such as figuring out what grapes are hardy enough to grow in the heights of the Dolomite Mountains. (Robert Camuto)
Mar 2, 2022

Gianluca Bisol has developed a taste for exotic wines close to his home in Italy’s Veneto region.

After making his fortune in the Prosecco boom with his family’s historic winery in Valdobbiadene, Bisol has taken on some off-the-wall side projects with vineyard ventures in places few (or no) others dare to go.

Fifteen years ago, he began his tiny Venissa estate on the Venetian island of Mazzorbo—just inches above the level of the temperamental lagoon. There he propagated cuttings of Dorona, an heirloom white grape variety, within an old walled convent; a small wine resort and gourmet restaurant followed.

Seven years ago. he invested in developing the Maeli estate with Elisa Dilavanzo, the former beauty queen turned winemaker, in the Euganean hills between Venice and the Dolomites. There she focuses on making wines from rare Yellow Muscat.

Around the same time, he jumped into his latest and most extreme project: cultivating Europe’s highest vineyard, in the chic Dolomites snow resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo, about 100 miles north of Venice. A mere three-quarters of an acre, the Vigna Major site nestles at an altitude of 4,429 feet.

“I love niche wine production, and I love the Veneto” says Bisol, now 55, as we hike along a dirt mountain path to Vigna Major. The vineyard, typically buried under snow most of the winter, is about 650 feet higher than Switzerland’s Visperterminen wine area, though Vigna Major has yet to come into production.

“In the same region, I will have the lowest vineyard in the world and the highest on the continent,” says Bisol, the picture of relaxed elegance with his jeans and handlebar moustache.

 The mountainside Vigna Major vineyard, with vine trunks blanketed in winter snow
In winter, Vigna Major's cold-hardy, bonsai-like Incrocio Manzoni Bianco and Solaris vines are safely blanketed in snow. (Courtesy of Gianluca Bisol)

Four years ago, he and his brother completed the sale of the family’s near century-old Desiderio Bisol & Figli to Gruppo Lunelli, which owns sparkling-wine producer Ferrari in Trento. He retains his day job as president of Bisol while moonlighting as a boutique winemaker.

I have known and written about Bisol for years and find him to be a proud Venetian with an eye for beauty, cash to invest and a knack for blending terroir with a luxury image.

Accordingly, he didn’t choose just any boggy lowlands for Venissa, he chose Venice. He didn’t pick any old mountain to make high-altitude wine but chose Cortina, which hosted the 1956 Olympics and will be a venue again in 2026. Both towns served as locations in James Bond flicks.

So before I went to Vigna Major, I thought the idea sounded cool. But, I wondered, is this project just too cool—both in its rarefied exclusivity and, literally, in climate? In other words, is Vigna Major just too far out there and up there?

Some history: The project began as an experiment by the Cortina-born enologist Fabrizio Zardini and Francesco Anaclerio, the research director of an important international vine nursery based in Friuli.

In 2011 the men planted seven varieties in a clearing in the great forests of Cortina collectively owned by the Regole d’Ampezzo, an association of descendants of the town’s original founders.

In the first February, nearly half of the vines were wiped out by freezing temperatures that lasted more than 10 days. The following year, more vines were lost to severe hail.

When Bisol met Zardini by chance at an event in Cortina in 2013, Zardini told him, “We can’t continue without investment.”

Bisol agreed to buy out the project and keep the men on as consultants. Over the next few years, they studied the evolution of the vineyard and, in 2018, regrafted it with what they found to be the two sturdiest cold-resistant varieties: Incrocio Manzoni Bianco, created in the Veneto by crossing Riesling and Pinot Bianco, and early-ripening Solaris, bred in Germany in the 1970s and planted in the first vineyards in England and French Normandy.

Today, Vigna Major is no ordinary-looking vineyard. I visited in September, some weeks before a tiny harvest would be trucked to Maeli, where it was expected to make enough wine for up to 50 bottles for friends and associates on Bisol’s gift list.

The vines—1,380 in all—look stunted and bonsai-like, rarely climbing to waist height, with tiny green berries in small bunches. They seem even tinier set against the dramatically large landscape dominated by Tofane, Cortina’s famed group of mountain peaks.

This all raises the question: Are these vines happy here?

Given the extreme conditions, Bisol says, “We expect to be able to make wine in seven out of 10 vintages.” In 2022, he hopes to make 700 bottles of a wine to be released under the Vigna Major name.

“In years when there is good acidity, we will make a sparkling Champenoise method,” he says. “If the summer is hot, we will make white [still] wine.”

So what’s the point of it?

“The purpose is to demonstrate that nature is very different at this altitude,” Bisol says, elaborating on the high solar radiation up here, which helps kill mold and mildew. “In every part of Europe, people are looking at higher vineyards [in response to] climate change.”

Let’s get real here. At less than 60 cases made, what exactly will Vigna Major be? Wine or a collector’s trinket? When Bisol told me the projected price tag is more than $500 a bottle, the question for me was settled. It’s a rare group that’s gonna splash that kind of cash.

Still, I’m intrigued by what kind of wine it will produce.

“The wine from here will have a maximum level of alcohol of 11.5 to 11.7 percent,” Bisol says. “It will be a different experience.”

Bisol is all about creating different experiences. He’s not stopping at Cortina. He continues to keep an open eye around the Veneto, including the crowded wine hills of Valpolicella, for more different experiences he might create. With characteristic aplomb, he says he’s in no hurry.

“In life,” he says, standing amid the Vigna Major vines as threatening clouds gather over the nearby peaks, “beautiful things arrive themselves.”

White Wines Italy

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