The Bardolino and Valpolicella winegrowing areas are located in close proximity to one another on opposite sides of the Adige River in the Veneto region in northeastern Italy, and both utilize the same principal grapes varieties, Corvina and Rondinella (along with some secondary players). But the wines they produce are notably different.

Valpolicella, located in the hills on the eastern side of the Adige, has a cooler continental environment. So cool in fact that grapes sometimes had difficulty ripening and winegrowers developed a practice of drying them before vinification, creating an intensely concentrated, highly alcoholic, decidedly sweet wine now known as Recioto.While the Romans appreciated the prodigiousness of the eastern area which they dubbed the “Valley of Many Cellars,” and loved the sweet wine that was made there (though in very small quantities and only for the super elite), the super-elite themselves chose to live on the other side of the river on the shore of Lake Garda where the climate was much more Mediterranean, and built impressive villas and planted lemon trees and olive orchards in addition to vines.

Drying grapes was not possible, but it wasn’t necessary: the fully-ripened grapes and the mixed morainic soil produced lighter-bodied, more elegant wines that were crisp and refreshing and perfectly suited the sparkling lake, its fresh fish, and the aromatic lemons and delicate olives that grew nearby.

Fast forward two millennia.

Both winegrowing areas were badly hit by events in the first half of the 20th century, but Valpolicella launched a comeback. In the 1950s some producers began to introduce a dry version of Recioto called Amarone followed by a ripasso version of Valpolicella. They developed international export markets in the US, at a time when the checkered-table Italian restaurant craze was taking off. And in 1968 the Valpolicalla production area was enlarged, drastically increasing production while significantly lowering overall quality. Valpolicella (like Chianti and Bardolino) developed a reputation for being cheap commercial plonk, and much of it was. But a real focus on quality has taken place over the past decades. Today the base level of Valpolicella is higher than it ever was and Amarone has finally received the recognition it deserves as one of Italy’s greatest wines.

Now it’s Bardolino’s turn to make a comeback — or maybe more of a makeover. And the timing might be just right.

The game plan, I learned on a recent trip to the area, has several basic components and play number one could be coded Think Pink.

The Bardolino area has traditionally made a paler version of the red Corvina-based wine called “Chiaretto” (“Little Clear One”), but it was still fairly dark, resembling more a transparent red wine than a rosé.

“Chiaretto is the New Wave of Bardolino,” proclaimed Angelo Peretti, architect of the makeover strategy, and the first step was getting producers to lighten the hue of the wine to something along the lines of a Provence rosé. Most did, and the “Rosé Revolution” took place with the 2014 vintage.

Another important step was creating a separate sub-appellation for Chiaretto, stipulating tighter regulations and thus a higher level of quality and consistency. It also involves growers declaring in advance which vineyards they plan to use for Chiaretto and which for Bardolino. “In the past,” said Peretti, “winemakers used the same vineyards and grapes for both wines. This is a mistake. Vines for Chiaretto should be pruned longer, which gives a greater volume of grapes with higher acidity. For rosé it’s acidity you really need, not ripeness. You can make good Chiaretto from grapes grown in the flat southern part of the Bardolino area and in cooler areas with less favorable exposition. These are the same areas that typically made the most mediocre Bardolino. We want to make more Chiaretto by making less Bardolino”

Which brings us to play number two.

The new plan seeks to revise the production ratios of Bardolino and Chiaretto and introduce an entirely new category of Bardolino, all of which is based on a close look and the inherent capabilities of the winegrowing area.

Historically, Bardolino produces about 26 million bottles per year. Until not too long ago, basic Bardolino accounted for almost all of this. In 1968 only 4 million bottles of Chiaretto were produced. Today, with the big boom in rosé, Chiaretto is up to about 10-12 million while Bardolino has slipped to 14-16 million. The goal is to capitalize on the rosé craze, increasing Chiaretto production to 15-19 million bottles, while reducing Bardolino to about 6-7 million, about half of which would fall into an entirely new category of super Bardolino.

The Bardolino area has been divided into three historical subzones: La Rocca (corresponding to the classic Bardolino area), Montebaldo and Sommacampagna.
While the new regulations for Bardolino and Chiaretto already reduce the maximum yield of grapes per hectare from 13 tons per hectare to 12, the maximum yield for the new sub-zone category is even lower, 10 tons per hectare, in order to produce a more complex terroir-driven wine that is capable of improving over 5-8 years or more. The initial target of ‘superior’ Bardolino from the new subzones will be about 2-3 million bottles.

All of this makes a lot of sense. Chiaretto is a perfectly pleasant rosé — fresh fruit, crisp acidity, with its own unique character from the Corvina grape. There doesn’t appear to be tremendous diversity within the category, but one could say the same thing about rosé in general. Given the current popularity of pink, it shouldn’t be too hard to sell 20 million bottles of rosé and it might even bring a whole new generation to Bardolino.

There is a market for simple, drinkable, relatively inexpensive wines like basic Bardolino, but there is also plenty of competition in that category, so it is wise to lower the amount produced as much as possible. And the basic Bardolino will only get better with the lower yield.

The big questions have to do with the new subzones.

Will the wines from these new subzones be perceptibly better than the regular ones? The lower yields are bound to make them beefier (as well as a bit more expensive) but will it give them more character, complexity and age-worthiness? What’s more, will there be a perceptible difference between the wines of one subzone and another?

“These are geographical boundaries, not terroir ones,” says Peretti.

That’s fine. But unless there is some distinguishable common thread that distinguishes the wines of one subzone from another, and Bardolino cru from the regular Bardolino, the additional names might add an additional layer of confusion and complication that could work to its disadvantage.

Bardolino clearly has the potential to regain its past glory and even exceed it. While I was in the area I had an opportunity to taste Bardolinos from 1968 and 1959 which, while not made with the intention of ageing and obviously a bit past their prime, were still well-knit and totally drinkable. I also came across a few extraordinary wines from recent vintages that seemed to express their specific place of origin and varietal character and could stand tall next to a great Barolo or Burgundy.

It may take a while for producers to get their footing, explore their particular terroir and figure out how to best express it in the wine. But it will fun to follow and taste as they do so.

The new appellation guidelines are currently awaiting approval from the Italian Minister of Agriculture. If all goes well, the new plan will go into effect for the 2019 vintage and Bardolinos bearing the subzone designations should begin arriving in the US in 2020. In the meantime, think pink and have some Chiaretto.