Walt Disney famously remarked “whatever you do, do it well.” It is good advice, but before you can do what you do, sometimes it is helpful to find out what you can do, and what has the potential to be done well.
On the shores of beautiful, scenic Lake Garda in northern Italy, Bardolino DOC has recently gone through some growing pains trying to sort exactly that point out. Long better-known for light, slightly tart, simple red wines, Bardolino tried to be reborn as, for lack of a better comparison, Valpolicella’s little brother. Red wines were the focus, more size and intensity were the target.
It didn’t work out quite as well as was hoped. The trappings, not to mention the damage to reputation, of bulk wine and overcropping are not easily shaken.
In the meantime, what suffered from the attention foisted on red was rosé (rosato in Italian). But those days might be over. Bardolino has recognised that it is not likely to become “little Valpolicella” – and it doesn’t need to. Because it has its own engine, and that engine is pink.
So why am I writing about it?
Because something is afoot in the world these days. Overlooked, neglected or even derided by wine snobs the world over, rosé is a force on the market and a trend that seems to be gearing up to stick around for a while – perhaps a very long while. People simply like drinking it.
I chuckle into my steepled fingers.
I love rosé. The more people that make it, the more often I can successfully find stuff that I really enjoy. And Bardolino Chiaretto, when it is done well, is a delightful companion to have at table.
Right and Left Bank
The shores of southern Lake Garda are studded with lovely villages and overseen by the stunning alpine landscape to the north. They also belong primarily to two wine appellations. On the Venetian side, to the east and south of the lake, we have Bardolino, which I mentioned above. On the Lombardian side to the west of the lake, we have Valtènesi. Both regions make reds and rosato wines, and both regions call their rosatos Chiaretto.
Along the border between the Veneto and Lombardy, there is a much more significant divide than mere political boundaries: the grape varieties used to make the local wines change.
Valtènesi works with the Gropellos, a group of dark-skinned grapes with lively acidity and spice that make pleasantly fruity rosés with good structure, while Bardolino works with grapes whose names resonate with anybody who knows the wines of Valpolicella: Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara. The wines from the Veneto are altogether lighter, fruitier and with higher acidity. These are food-friendly wines.
Chiaretto translates into English roughly as “clear”, and is only used to describe the rosés of Lake Garda, both in still and sparkling form. In a country blessed with a half-thousand different grapes and several thousand different wines, the Chiarettos of the south of the lake belong to a small group of rosés with real tradition and history that are made in Italy.
Like the red wine, Bardolino Chiaretto can be made in all 16 communities of the zone.
It has no pretensions to grandeur, nor is it a wine for meditative evenings in front of the fire. It doesn’t need to be, either. The wines live from being fresh, light and delicately aromatic, with scents of orange blossom and citrus fruit, red berries and a bit of spice – and a crisp, dry finish. These wines are not sweet, or even off-dry. They are often made in large enough quantities to be widely available and relatively consistent.
And with the new impetus coming from the Consorzio, the quality is going up, while the prices remain at a very, very friendly level. Chiaretto is a wine meant for the table, to slake a thirst and to be a pleasant companion to food and friends. And it does a fine job of this.
As children, we learn that one should not judge a book by its cover. With rosé wines, this wisdom seems to have been abandoned.
Colour is more important with rosés than for either reds or whites. Unfairly, the shade of a rosé can sell the wine or leave it gathering dust on the shelf. Italy has a couple of significant rosés that are famous for their deep colour (hello Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo), but it is the more delicate salmon or copper famous from Provençe that tends to move wines. Chiaretto is currently being made in virtually all shades of the rosé palette, but producers are definitely taking notice of what colour sells best, and are responding accordingly. They are zeroing in on a delicate, salmon pink.
The Elephant in the Room
No, not the gentleman whose picture is below. He is doing very good things for the zone.
If you have to ask, it is quality.
I mentioned the somewhat underwhelming reputation for Bardolino reds above. The situation for Chiaretto was easily just as dire. Perhaps it got more overlooked simply because few people expect a rosé to be substantial. Especially while sipping a bicchiere of the local effort while sunning oneself on holiday at the lake.
Now, the consortium has taken a new tack: they are starting to concentrate on quality instead of quantity. Yields are being reduced, more attention is being paid to the soils, to the winemaking and to the grape varieties themselves. Increasingly, focus is being directed towards organic viticulture and sustainability, two things that Angelo Peretti, director of the consortium for Bardolino (and so, for Bardolino Chiaretto), says are the entire future for the region. These are all steps in the right direction, and the producers who have adopted them are making a commitment to future quality.
How to Make a Rosé
For a wine that isn’t taken seriously often enough, making a good rosé is surprisingly difficult. In fact, one winemaker in Provence said that it is the hardest wine to get right. People expect it to be fresh, immediately drinkable, with lovely colour and good fruit. Achieving this year-to-year can be a challenge, and there is little leeway in the cellar.
Obviously you will need to start with red grapes to make a rosé. There are three main ways to make the wine itself:
Pressurage Direct: grapes are pressed, then may or may not be macerated. Wines are usually lighter and less structured than saignée, below, but are also generally considered the better rosés, partly because with this process rosé is the goal, not a by-product.
Saignée: running off juice from freshly-crushed, gently macerated red grapes. The juice is rosé, and the remaining (more concentrated) must will become a darker red wine. Win-win, in some circles. The wines are generally a bit more structured than pressurage direct, above.
Blending: sure. Mix a little bit of red wine into a white wine. The perennial joke at wine tastings and social gatherings is, in fact, a real practice in a few winemaking areas – including in vaunted Champagne itself. Nevertheless, it is illegal for the making of rosé in most areas of the world – and nearly all of Europe. Rightly so, in my opinion, but that is probably because I prefer lots of things to be done in an authentic fashion. It is difficult for me to accept blending red and white to make rosé, since a wine that is vinified as a rosé from the start is made differently, handled differently, and develops differently because of it.
The Tour and the Tasting
There is no better way to get a feel for a wine then to see where it comes from, meet the people and experience the land. Lake Garda is a legendary tourist destination – extremely popular for Germans. So popular, in fact, that some towns have signs in German as well as Italian and – at least the few times that I’ve walked around Bardolino and other towns along the shore – one hears German more often on the streets than Italian.
Angelo Peretti took us around the Bardolino zone and the east side of Lake Garda, allowing us to get better acquainted with the towns, the soils (mostly alluvial, scoured from the Dolomites by glaciers over successive ice ages and left behind upon their retreat) and the traditions. It was interesting, educational and very, very beautiful. And it was a wonderful introduction to the region.
The setting for the tasting – in “Oseleta”, a superb restaurant on the property of Villa Cordevigo – was excellent and the service was impeccable. We tasted blind, which is always helpful at such events. Producers and prices were only revealed at the end. A total of 30 wines from 20 different producers were poured, mostly Chiaretto but also some Bardolino reds. Almost all of the wines were at least good, with some truly lovely examples to be found. Learning the prices of some of my favourite bottles afterwards was surprising indeed. My highlights are, as always, at the end.
But what was a particularly good idea was the after-tasting dinner. Off we went to one of Verona’s finest pizza restaurants, where all of the Chiaretto reappeared to be tried with a variety of different pizzas. If you were looking for an excellent wine with pizza, Bardolino Chiaretto should be first on your list of wines to try.
ALBINO PIONA – Bardolino Chiaretto 2016
Light and mineral, with good acidity and a hint of chamomile. Slightly herbal, but with strong strawberry emerging in the finish. Very reminiscent of the south of France with regards to style, right down to the salmon/copper colour.
IL PIGNETTO – Bardolino Chiaretto 2016
A medium-dark rosé colour, with lots of raspberry, strawberry and a touch of woodsmoke. Saline and with a dash of iodine, it is also very floral. Good complexity here.
LE MORETTE – Bardolino Chiaretto Classico 2016
Light and fresh – one of the freshest, in fact. Nearly bubblegum raspberry aromas, floral and delicate. Very good length.
VIGNETI VILLABELLA – Bardolino Chiaretto “Heaven Scent” 2016
Salmon-coloured, creamy and with good density, also good acidity and even decent length. There is spice and fruit enough to interest most drinkers. Lovely.
A Note About Bardolino Rosso
It may have come across as if I thought the red wines of Bardolino are all thin and awful. This is not the case. Many of the wines are lovely, well-made and quite enjoyable – and there is a movement underway in the zone to establish a cru system for the red wines, based on the village system found in Burgundy. Exciting stuff that I would, personally, love to learn more about! More on that if I get the chance to experience them directly.
IL PIGNETTO – Bardolino 2016
Lots of cherry, lively acidity, an oh-so-typical amaro finish. Light and fine tannin. Vibrant and taut, with decent length. Appetising and not insipid, but also not overly complicated.
LE FRAGHE – Bardolino Classico Brol Grande 2015
Velvety and yet quite structured. Lots of intensity and a bit closed. Minty, but with some red fruit emerging – and good potential.
VIGNETI VILLABELLA – Bardolino Classico Vigna Morlongo 2014
The only 2014 from the lineup. It was a tough vintage, but the results have been worth it. The wine is, more complex, with a dominating vegetal touch – but very good balance and structure. There is a lot of interest in this wine.