Chiaretto di Bardolino is easily the most popular rosato in Italy, and yet it struggles for international recognition compared to its illustrious vinous neighbours in North Italy. The Consorzio aims to change all that with a series of initiatives that it hopes will maintain high quality and also keep the focus on the region’s key grape, Corvina, which all these Italian pink wines must now be largely made from. Justin Keay tastes through 50 wines from the 2019 and 2020 vintages and is seriously impressed – not just by the quality but also the excellent taste profile that is maintained by even the lesser producers.
“What emerged from tasting these wines is that producers here clearly know what they are doing in helping build the brand that is Chiaretto di Bardolino but they are not sacrificing individuality or quality in getting there,” writes Keay.
One of the many mysteries of the wine world is how it is possible to have adjacent regions where one is internationally renowned but the other languishes in relative obscurity. This despite sharing similar soils, grape varieties, climate and traditions.
From 2020 Chiaretto di Bardolino producers must now use 95% Corvina grapes for their DOC wines
Bardolino, on the south-eastern shore of Lake Garda, and Valpolicella, represent a classic example of the phenomenon. The former is known for its soft, un-ambitious fruity reds – quite the thing over here in the 1970s and 1980s – and its fresh rosato, mostly drunk by locals and tourists. Valpolicella, by contrast, is renowned for its powerful reds and ripassos, at the apex of which sits Amarone, one of Italy’s most iconic wines. Yet these two regions lie just half an hour’s drive apart and have been each been using the same varieties (Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara) to make their respective wines for centuries.
This disparity in fortunes is something Franco Christoforetti, President of the Consorzio di tutela Chiaretto e del Bardolino, seems determined to change. Earlier this year the group launched a major sales push into the US to take advantage of the growing popularity of pink wine stateside and now it is targeting the UK (Germany and surprisingly France are currently the two main export markets, Christoforetti suggesting the latter as akin to “selling snow to the Eskimos”).
Franco Christoforetti : “the first and hopefully the last time we promote the region virtually”
Currently 60% of the 10 million bottles produced annually in the region are exported. Christoforetti believes that there is a lot of untapped demand and with production growing – and quality on the rise as organic and sustainable production increase – this ratio can be increased.
He points out that the region shares a long common history of producing lightly pressed red wines (Vino Claro) with Provence, which in Roman times was called Gallia Transalpina. There, as on the shores of Lake Garda, the nobility made wine from presses in their gardens, gently macerating to get refreshing pink wine, presumably a lot more pleasant to drink than water, which could give you all sorts of nasty diseases.
Bardolino was one of Italy’s first DOCs, getting the status in 1968, but whilst Provence rose grew in popularity – particularly over the past decade – Chiaretto Bardolino – whose name translates as “pale” or “light” – remained an also ran, overshadowed in some ways by the region’s decent but unremarkable reds.
However the Chiaretto segment has been growing: in 2008 it accounted for just 15% of Bardolino’s output, now it stands at 40% and the plan is to increase this to 60%, with red Bardolino essentially going upmarket, to be produced in specific crus (such as Montebaldo, La Rocca and Sommacampagna) rather than as a mass market wine. In terms of volume, but without sacrificing quality, rosato will be king in this part of Lake Garda.
At last week’s press launch, built around an ante-prima Zoom tasting of the 2020 vintage, Christoforetti admitted that spreading the word during lockdown was proving a challenge.
“This is the first time we’ve attempted to promote Chiaretto di Bardolino virtually and I hope it’s the last. You must all come to Lake Garda to see the vineyards and taste the wines in reality,” he said.
That said, this was one of the more ambitious Zoom press launches I’ve had the pleasure to attend. Attendees received a pack containing 50 (yep, you read that right:50) mini samples mainly of the 2020 vintage, described by Christoforetti as a typically good one for the region. Alongside this we received three rather decent local cheeses and a 320 page book – like the wines, all in miniature.
Given that I didn’t know any of the producers, this was one of the more liberating tastings I’ve had, without preconceptions; variations on a wine called Chiaretto so to speak, in all due deference to Paganini. So what was my impression?
Despite the wines mostly being a lighter shade of pale – the move towards gris style being something else this region shares with Provence – and all generally dry there was none of the palate-numbing ubiquity that I was fearing. Variations on the style, to be sure, but in a good way; this one with a bit more body, that one a little more acidity, this one with more residual sugar perhaps, that one a bit darker. And all 12% alcohol.
The new Chiaretto di Bardolino regulations
What emerged from tasting these wines is that producers here clearly know what they are doing in helping build the brand that is Chiaretto di Bardolino but they are not sacrificing individuality or quality in getting there.
In this they have been given a helping hand by the Consorzio. With the region already the largest pink wine producer in Italy – only Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo with six million bottles comes anywhere close – the Consorzio has been working to consolidate the region’s reputation for quality. Since 2014 producers have been required to make their wines in the lighter style with a very short maceration of around five hours’ tops.
Last year saw another change, this time in nomenclature, with Chiaretto getting some subtle independence from red Bardolino with the addition of the di – before that the wines were Chiaretto Bardolino. And, as in Chianti Classico, where producers have been obligated to up the ratio of that region’s key variety Sangiovese in their DOCG wines, in Chiaretto di Bardolino producers must now use 95% Corvina grapes for their DOC wines. The remaining 5% must be Rondinella – which previously could have been up to 20% – with tricky Molinara largely falling by the wayside.
“Corvina is much the best grape for the terroir here and it gives lots of expressive citrus notes that we are keen to preserve,” says Christoforetti.
So how were the new Chiaretto di Bardolino tasting?
In tasting through the 2020 vintage (most of which are 80/20 Corvina/Rondinella) perhaps the most defining constant was the brightness and freshness. Tourist literature for Lake Garda highlights that it lies precisely mid way between Venice and Milan. For the wines, however, the fact they come from an Alpine-Mediterranean environment – with the lake and the nearby Morainic Hills providing a unique micro-climate – is what makes them special. Having no fewer than 66 different soil types and a reputation for windiness (two other features of this region) also brings attributes to the wines and underlines their appeal.
Indeed, tasting through the 2020s and the few 2019 wines (a much hotter year, yielding a smaller harvest) made me realise how much the wines here differ from Provence pinks, where some of the lesser producers can be accused of making rather bland wines because this is what the market demands. The wines here have more salinity and more grip, with raspberry, strawberry and cinnamon flavours all constituting part of the typical taste profile.
So which stood out? Monte del Fra 2020, imported by BBR and Bancroft, was a classic, dry but with good berry fruit flavours; Lenotti’s Chiaretto Classico and Classico Decus (imported by Le Bon Vin) were both great, very clean and fresh on the palate, with the latter, single vineyard wine showing more fruit but also more precision; Cavalchina’s Chiaretto 2020 (Vinum Terra) was more sumptuous, with a little more residual sugar but still very fresh and delicate; and Vitevis – Chiaretto di Bardolino Cantina del Garda and the Terre di Castelnuovo (Virgin Wines) were both very decent, showing great balance and freshness.
But the big take away is that most of these producers have yet to find a UK importer, including ones I rated highly (Le Tende’s Chiaretto Classico Bio 2020 and Le Vigne di San Pietro – Chiaretto di Bardolino Corderosa 2020 among them). With Chiaretto di Bardolino generally continuing to improve quality and variety – organic and sustainable production are on the rise whilst more than 25 producers now also make sparkling wine (by the Martinotti/Charmat method) – this is clearly an exciting time here.
UK importers keen to meet consumers’ growing thirst for pink wine, but also looking for quality at a decent price, should take note.