Beautiful Lake Como in northern Lombardy--summer home of the wealthy for centuries--might be Italy’s most famous lake. But Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, might also be the country’s most renowned wine destination, at least for those who wish to combine the pleasures of lakeside living along with wine exploration.
Lago di Garda is in north-central Italy, shared by the regions of Lombardy and Veneto--with a little bit of Trentino-Alto Adige at its northern end. Milan is to its west, with Verona and Venice to its east. The most famous town on Lake Garda is Sirmione, at the southern end of the lake. Although I have always loved Sirmione, one of Italy’s most picturesque villages, I avoid it like the plague in the summer months, when it’s overrun by vacationing tourists--just like Florence and Venice.
For me, the ideal time to visit Lake Garda, and especially Sirmione, is the fall. This September, I visited Lake Garda, splitting my stay between Sirmione and Bardolino, a charming wine village located on the eastern side of the lake. This region is remarkably rich in wines, with Custoza bordering Lake Garda on the southeast, along with Valpolicella/ Amarone and the Soave wine zones around the city of Verona to the east.
My purpose on this trip was to explore the wines of the Bardolino zone (red, rosé, and sparkling) and Lugana--a primarily white wine zone just south of Lake Garda. I knew that Bardolino, always a favorite wine of mine, was going through a revival, and I had never visited Lugana before.
It is no secret that Bardolino--along with its sister Veronese wines, Valpolicella and Soave, three of Italy’s most popular wines in the USA during the 1950s through the ‘80s, suffered greatly from over-production, beginning in the 1970s. Alas, so often the price of fame. Industrial wineries and cooperatives made a large percentage of the wines from these three zones, but not from the best, classico zones (typically hilly areas where, traditionally, the best vineyards are located). Frankly, most of the wines coming from the large wineries and cooperatives during that time were mediocre, at best.
Overproduction damaged the reputation of these three classic wines, and they are only now beginning to recover from it. But I’m happy to report that things are now looking up, at least for Bardolino and Soave.
Valpolicella has a different problem. So much of its wine is going into Amarone production that it has become difficult to find elegant, medium-bodied Valpolicellas. Many of the wines that do call themselves Valpolicella today are big, alcoholic, oaky Amarone wanna-be’s. But that’s a story for another day.
Truthfully, Bardolino is a wine that has been foundering for the past twenty-plus years--maybe longer. What has apparently sparked Bardolino’s revival has been the emergence in popularity of rosé wines during the past five years. Chiaretto, or Bardolino Chiaretto, to give the wine its full name (the rosé wine made from the same grapes as Bardolino), has become an “in “ wine, at least in Italy and Germany, and its popularity is spreading. With it has come Bardolino Chiaretto Spumante, a sparkling, quite dry rosé, which I love. And the best news is that Chiaretto retails in the $10 to $15 price range--although it might be difficult to find the sparkling version of Chiaretto in the U.S. at present, because only a small percentage of Bardolino wineries are making it right now. But just about all of them make Chiaretto, typically in a slightly off-dry style.
Bardolino has begun to re-discover its place, with the new-found popularity of Chiaretto. Bardolino wineries are now realizing that consumers want its wine to be what it used to be, a delightful, elegant, light-bodied, light-colored red with a good amount of lively acidity that can be enjoyed with fish and seafood as well as with pasta and light meat entrées. About 10 years ago, many Bardolino wineries followed what I believe was the wrong path, making this naturally light-bodied red wine darker and more full-bodied, very much like what has happened to many Valpolicellas. Fortunately, with the 2008 vintage, Bardolino has started to return to its roots.
Bardolino is made from the same grape varieties as Valpolicella, but in different proportions. The three main varieties are Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, with up to 15 percent other varieties allowed in Bardolino. Corvina, the main variety, provides body and color to the wine. It usually makes up 65 to 70 percent of Bardolino. Rondinella, a lighter variety, adds flavor and complexity; typically about 10 to 20 percent of Rondinella is in the blend. The balance of Bardolino comes from Molinara and other varieties; Molinara adds fragrance to the wine.
Valpolicella, on the other hand, typically uses more Corvina and fewer other varieties. And presently, many Valpolicellas are oak-aged, whereas most Bardolinos are aged in stainless steel, and aged for a shorter time. For example, you can find 2009 Bardolinos and Chiarettos at retail shops, but most Valpolicellas now available are from 2008 or 2007.
Bardolino Classico, grown around the town of Bardolino and neighboring communes around Lake Garda, when at its best, is a light, fresh, fragrant red wine. It should be lightly chilled, just like a Beaujolais. (The soil and climate around the lake is quite different from the stony, granitic hillsides that produce the relatively more full-bodied Valpolicella.) Chiaretto and Chiaretto Spumante (the sparkling version) are best served cold.
The Bardolino zone (just like Valpolicella) also boasts a Bardolino Superiore version, which has one more degree of alcohol and is aged for one more year than Bardolino. But after extensively tasting both versions, I can tell you that Bardolino Superiore is not nearly as successful as Bardolino--especially Bardolino Classico (made in the Classico zone, around the town of Bardolino). The Superiore is a bigger, darker version of the wine, but in my opinion, it doesn’t work. The wine loses its finest characteristics--such as elegance and freshness--when made in this manner.
About 45 percent of Bardolino wine is made in the Classico zone; the rest is produced mainly in a region to the south, shared with the Custoza DOC zone. I tasted many Bardolinos made outside of the Classico zone that were fine, but some of the best are Bardolino Classicos, and are labeled as such.
Right now, about 60 percent of Bardolino’s 32 million bottle production is exported, with 40 percent sold within Italy.
Chiaretto production has really been booming in the last four years; including Spumante, the amount of Chiaretto wine produced has doubled during this time (over 10 million bottles during this past year),whereas Bardolino Rosso production remained about the same over the last four years (22 million bottles), increasing a modest 4 percent in the past year.
Small, independent producers make up about one-third of Bardolino’s production. The rest comes from large wineries and co-ops. The followng two Bardolino wines were my favorites among those I tasted (the same producers who make excellent Bardolinos also produce fine Chiarettos):
Guerrieri Rizzardi Bardolino Classico: This producer, the most prestigious in the region, practically owns the town of Bardolino. As of now, its wine is being imported into Colorado, but distribution will be expanding shortly. The 2009 Chiaretto is available in NYC for $13. Guerrieri Rizzardi’s finest Bardolino Classico, the single-vineyard Tacchetto, is not available in the U.S. at present, but has been here in the past and will be here soon, in small quantities (estimated retail price, $18 to $20).
Le Fraghe Bardolino: Matilde Poggi is the winemaker-owner. Her Bardolino is not a Classico because she is bold enough to use screwcaps, unheard of in this region and not allowed for Bardolino Classico yet. Also, Poggi, mother of three young ones, does use some vineyards outside of the Classico zone. If there was one producer whose Bardolino left the greatest impression on me, it was Le Fraghe; loved her wines! Made from Corvina and Rondinella only. The 2008 and 2009 Le Fraghe are available in the U.S. and retail for $14 to $15.
Other good Bardolinos available in the U.S.:
Albino Piona Bardolino 2008: $13 to $15
Cavalchina Bardolino (not tasted recently): $14 to $16
Corte Gardoni Bardolino “Le Fontane” 2009: $14 to $15
Ronca Bardolino “Erre” 2008: $16 to $17
Enjoy Bardolino and Chiaretto while it’s fresh and young with pasta, pizza, chicken, risotto, salami, vegetables, seafood, and fish.
The Lugana wine zone lies west and south of the Bardolino zone, and directly south of Lake Gada. Lugana is a white wine not well-known in the U.S., but it should be known because it is a lively, dry, medium-bodied wine with rich texture and fruitiness that makes a great complement to antipasti and fish. I enjoyed it with the perch, trout, and other fish freshly caught in Lake Garda.
The Lugana wine region enjoys a mild climate because of the influence of the huge Lake Garda to its north. Two-thirds of the Lugana wine region is in the region of Lombardy; one third, the eastern part of the region, is in the Veneto. The main grape variety in Lugana wines is Trebbiano di Lugana, also known as Trebbiano di Soave and known locally as Turbiana. At least 90 percent of Trebbiano di Lugana must be in all Lugana DOC wines. A small percentage of Garganega, the main grape variety of Soave, and other allowed varieties often makes up the other 10 percent, but many Lugana wines are 100 percent Trebbiano di Lugana--considered to be a much finer variety than Trebbiano di Toscana.
About 60 percent of Lugana wines stay in Italy; 40 percent are exported.
Some Lugana wines which I enjoyed that are currently in the U.S. include the following:
Ottella Lugana 2008/2009: $15 to $19
Ca’ Lojera Lugana 2008: $16
Tenuta Roveglia Lugana 2008/2009: $15 to $19
Provenza Lugana 2008/2009: $10 to $14
Zenato Lugana “San Benedetto” 2008/2009: $10 to $13
Ca’ dei Frati “I Frati” Lugana 2008/2009 (not tasted recently): $21 to $23
Ca’ dei Frati is one of the few major Lugana wines that is aged in oak. I found the Provenza Luganas to be particularly excellent values.
If you do visit Sirmione, don’t fail to visit Vecchia Lugana restaurant, overlooking Lake Garda, one of the best and more beautiful restaurants in Italy.
Bardolino--including its wonderful rosé, Chiaretto--and Lugana are delightful, versatile wines which complement all sorts of cuisine. What’s more, they are very affordable and easy-drinking. I urge you to try them, and, in the case of Bardolino, re-discover them.