Heading north east across the region of Italy called the Veneto, it was as flat as the proverbial pancake. “Are we not stopping to see Venice?” enquired Vinnie. “Not this time,” I replied. “We have business elsewhere on Terra Ferma“. Vinnie looked disappointed and confused at the same time so I went on to explain that people think of Venice as the city in the lagoon but, at the height of its power, it had a Mediterranean empire that stretched as far as Cyprus. It also controlled a large part of what is now north-east Italy and that is what the Venetians called Terra Ferma or solid ground, in contrast to the islands of the lagoon.
In fact, if you don’t wish to get crushed by the millions of tourists in the city, there are many smaller towns where you can enjoy the beauties of Venetian Gothic architecture and still have room to breathe. The signature feature of these buildings is the Gothic ogee trefoil window. One look at one of these and you think of Venice immediately and they are here in the town of Portogruaro, founded in 1140, when the archbishop gave a group of local fishermen the right to build a port on the river Lemene. Another feature that the town shares with other northern Italian cities are the portici on the main street in the old city centre. These are covered walkways that run underneath the projecting buildings on the main street. This means that not only do the buildings gain extra space above ground floor level but pedestrians are protected from sun and, more importantly, in winter, rain.
A few miles outside the town is the hamlet of Lison, which gives its name to the local DOCG white wine and between the two is the winery called A Mi Manera. Here Antonio Bigai and his son, Carlo, produce their take on this delight. The soil here is predominantly clay and from seven hectares they produce around 42,000 bottles per year. Antonio, known as Toni, graduated in agriculture and oenology before working in wine in Brazil, Argentina and California. He has brought all this experience back to his native Veneto where he is always happy to experiment using a range of different ways to mature his wines. He has traditional large oak botte as well as 500l tonneaux and 220l barrique but, more than this, he also has cement tanks and terracotta amphorae. He produces a range of white and red wines but if you talk to him about his Lison he will become very traditional and talk of the Tocai grape. This name was banned in 2008 when the European Court ruled that there was a risk of confusion with Hungarian Tokay and today it is more commonly referred to as Friulano but Toni has it on his labels as the alternative name, Tai.
The production rules for Lison specify that it must be at least 85% Friulano but Toni does not blend his wine; he prefers to let this local grape do the talking. Harvest time is normally around the middle of September and is done by hand to avoid damage to the grapes. They are then soft pressed for 24 hours under chilled conditions to allow the flavours in the skins to come through without extracting tannins. After a temperature-controlled fermentation, the wine then matures for eight months in stainless steel and a further two months in the bottle before being released. The result is a straw yellow with just a hint of green. On the nose it is full of the white flowers of spring – for me that is elderflower – with a hint of almond. On the palate it is full-bodied with the flavours of fruits and a bright minerality. An obvious match for fish and shellfish, this wine is a perfect match for a plate of oysters or a good spaghetti alle vongole.
Toni produces two other wines from his Tai, an IGT and, interestingly, one matured in terracotta amphorae. He also grows another local variety, Malvasia Istriana, which comes full of the aromas of peaches and apricots.
When you open a bottle of Toni’s wine you will notice that instead of corks he uses a special high-tech plastic stopper designed to allow just the right degree of oxygenation and each one with a different colour for each wine. Yes, he really does it, a su manera, his way.