Rosé-Nothing but Rosé

Readers may find it odd that I, who am generally unenthusiastic about rosé, should be writing about that category.  And enthusiastically at that.  However surprising that may be (even to me), I stumbled across a category of rosé, Bardolino Chiaretto DOC, that is stunning.  I recently tasted a dozen examples from the 2020 vintage and found an appealing consistency among the wines from that appellation.  There was not a loser in the bunch.  And the most expensive of the group was $17!

My introduction to Bardolino Chiaretto (key-ar-et-toe) was serendipitous.  Last month I attended a webinar called Rosauctoctono, which is an association of Italian producers making pink wine.  They prefer the moniker Vino Rosa over rosé or even rosato to indicate high-quality pink Italian wine.  All the wines tasted during the webinar were made from autochthonous or indigenous grapes.  I’m a big fan of wines made from autochthonous grapes because they each have a unique profile and display unique flavors.  Rarely do you find a cookie-cutter wine made from autochthonous grapes.  So, I figured that rosés from those kinds of grapes just might ignite an interest in me.  While many of these Vino Rosa were noteworthy, the two that leaped to the top were both Bardolino Chiaretto, a wine that I was unfamiliar with.  (Chiaretto means “little pale one.”)  So, I asked Irene Graziotto from Studio Cru, the Italian PR firm who organized the Rosa tasting, if I could sample more of them, and within a few weeks a dozen more Bardolino Chiaretto from the 2020 vintage arrived at my door.

DOC regulations may explain why Bardolino Chiaretto is so engaging.  Rosé is all the DOC allows producers to make.  No red, no white.  All production must be rosé.  Bardolino Chiaretto is one of only two appellations in Europe whose wines are restricted to rosé.  (The other is Tavel in the southern Rhône. In distinction to Tavel, there is a separate, but geographically overlapping, DOC for Bardolino’s red wines, so producers can make either Bardolino Chiaretto or Bardolino as long as they conform to the regulations for the respective DOCs.)

This sharp focus on rosé is distinctly different from how many rosés were, and still are, made.  In the past, and to a certain extent today, much rosé was a by-product of beefing up red wine.  Producers wanting to enhance the power of their reds would remove some juice after a day or so of maceration to concentrate what remained.  Known as saignée (literally, bleeding, in French), this practice resulted in lightly pink colored juice being bled off and darker, more robust red juice that was still macerating with the skins that eventually would become a heftier red wine.  Winegrowers, like other farmers, are naturally parsimonious and would not want to discard the drawn-off pink colored juice, so they let it, too, ferment, which usually resulted in an undistinguished, but easy-to-drink, rosé.

To be fair, with the increasing popularity of rosé, many producers are focusing on it today, doing precisely what the DOC regulations for Bardolino Chiaretto demand.  They enhance quality by picking grapes earlier to capture their acidity, which translates into liveliness in the wine.  In the cellar, they let the skins and juice macerate for just hours and then, like white winemaking, separate the now-pink juice from the skins and complete the fermentation.  The remaining pomace (leftover skins after fermentation) is either distilled or used for fertilizer.  In short, producers are not relegating rosé to a by-product of enhancing red wine.  Hence, the possibility of finding higher quality rosé is better now than it was a decade ago.  That said, there’s still an ocean-full of insipid pink wine on the market, which makes Bardolino Chiaretto all the more welcome.

Bardolino Chiaretto comes primarily from a trio of red grapes used for Valpolicella and Amarone, Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, grown around Bardolino, a town on the eastern shore of Lake Garda.  Though located in northern Italy, the climate is remarkably mild, allowing cultivation of olive trees that produce a very fine olive oil in addition to grapes.

Unlike many appellations that try to use a standard recognizable bottle, producers of Bardolino Chiaretto use a variety of shapes; these range from tall slender Alsace-like ones, to slope-y shouldered Burgundy ones, to square-shouldered Bordeaux bottles.  The one thing in common is clear glass so that the gorgeous pink hues are apparent.  You’ll find them bottled under screwcap as well as cork and labeled as Chiaretto Bardolino or Chiaretto di Bardolino and, sometimes, simply Chiaretto.  Regardless, they all conform to the same DOC regulations.  Starting with the 2021 vintage, the official labeling will be Chiaretto di Bardolino to emphasize the origin of the grapes, much like Barbera d’Alba or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

Some of the Chiaretto Bardolino sport the additional moniker, Classico, indicating that the grapes grew in the center or best area of the DOC.  Among the dozen examples I tasted, the ones from the Classico area stood out from most of the others with more depth and elegance.  However, several non-Classico bottlings, such as the organic Gorgo (di Roberta Bricolo) and Giovanna Tantini’s, were equally impressive, so I would not be wedded to that designation.  As usual, it’s producer, producer, producer.

The wines vary in color from the very trendy pale pink to more intense salmon color.  These dry wines display a richness despite stated alcohols of less than 13%.  (Only two of the 12 weighed in at more, 13 and 13.5% stated-alcohol.)  They all had riveting acidity and character, something often lacking in many rosés, making them singularly bright and refreshing.

For what it’s worth, here are my five favorites, but frankly, I’d be thrilled to drink any of these, which is something I don’t believe I’ve ever said about a group of rosé wines.  The points I’ve assigned reflect my enthusiasm for the wine within this category and should not be equated with wines in other categories.

Guerrieri Rizzardi, Bardolino Chiaretto Classico “Keya:” Gorgeous aromatics; slightly deeper pink which carries through on the palate as a fuller wine; still with bracing and refreshing acidity; persistent; lovely hint of bitterness in the finish.  ($14, 95 pts).

Giovanna Tantini, Bardolino Chiaretto: Pale pink; juicy, yet delicate red fruits; crisp, refreshing and long; attractive hint of bitterness in the finish.  (N/A, 94).

Gorgo (di Roberta Bricolo) Bardolino Chiaretto: Savory nuances add complexity to the delicate red fruit component; fresh and lively; long and persistent; a real presence.  ($14, 94).

Marchesini Marcello, Bardolino Chiaretto Classico: Based on my experience with two vintages of this wine, Marchesini Marcello is a name to remember.  Cutting and crisp, the 2020 delivers intensity and freshness.  ($17, 94).

Valetti, Bardolino Chiaretto Classico: gorgeous salmon color; juicy red fruits; alluring spice; great acidity; elegant and persistent.  (N/A, 94).

The others:

Il Pignetto, Chiaretto (92, $N/A)
Vigneti Villabella, Bardolino Chiaretto Classico (92, $N/A)
Zeni, Bardolino Chiaretto Classico, “Vignealte” (92, $N/A)
Cavalchina, Bardolino Chiaretto (90, $17)
Le Fraghe, “Rodon,” Bardolino Chiaretto (90, $17)
Monte del Frá, Bardolino Chiaretto (89, $N/A)
Poggio delle Grazie, Bardolino Chiaretto (87 $N/A)

Have I been converted to rosé?  No.  In most situations that call for rosé, I still prefer to drink a slightly chilled low-tannin light red, such as Beaujolais, because they are usually more interesting.  Have I been converted to Bardolino Chiaretto—most definitely.

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E-mail me your thoughts about rosé in general or Bardolino Chiaretto in particular at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein.        July 28, 2021