Much of the wine-drinking world looks down on Aligoté. So, why do so many vignerons in Burgundy grow it on land they could use for Chardonnay or Pinot Noir?
Say “Burgundy” and winelovers’ thoughts veer to great Chardonnays like Corton-Charlemagne, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, and to phenomenal Pinot Noirs like Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Musigny, Pommard and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC).
No wonder. These are destination wines that, once tasted, can never be forgotten.
Engaged wine aficionados dream of tasting them, achieve euphoria when they finally do and then rhapsodize about the experience forever after.
Personally, I recall every detail of my visit to the DRC back in 1997. I remember meeting Aubert de Villaine at the gate and it taking a very long time before he opened it for us. When I close my eyes and go back to that moment, I can still taste the ’96s from the barrel in their full richness. I cherish the brief tour of the bunker-library of old vintages and the tasting game of “identify-the-vintage” when we were poured a sample of white wine. Some thought it was a barrel sample, others gave it a few years, while I guessed 1990. It turned out to be a 1970 Montrachet from the library. I almost wet myself with amazement and joy. I still see the golden colour, feel the smooth texture, smell the lush, youthful fruit and relive the succulent swallow.
But this article isn’t about that.
Last year over lunch in Meursault, I asked Cécile Mathiaud, the public relations director for Vins de Bourgogne, which was the most-planted grape variety after Chardonnay and Pinot Noir … fully expecting to hear Gamay.
Nope. Her answer was Aligoté.
“What about Passe-Tout-Grains — the famous Bourgogne blend of two-thirds Gamay and one third Pinot Noir, which some folks know as PTG?” I asked. “That wine has inspired producers in other countries, including Canada, to emulate the blend. What about all those lovely reds from Mâcon?”
“We’re making less and less Mâcon Rouge,” said Mathiaud. According to her research, Aligoté accounts for six percent of all the plantings in the Burgundy region, although it comprises 100 percent in the Bouzeron appellation.
Bouzeron is the northernmost of the five village appellations in the Côte Chalonnaise — the others are Rully, Mercurey, Givry, and Montagny. And it’s the only appellation in all of France for Aligoté. For the record, the Bouzeron appellation covers only 56 hectares. Any Chardonnay grown within the village must be labelled “Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise.”
We work Aligoté the same way we work the Chardonnay grapes, in the vineyard and in the winery. So, it's really two separate grape varieties that are as good as each other.Aurélie Nudant
The most famous estate in Bouzeron is Domaine de Villaine, widely seen as being responsible for Aligoté's revived reputation. In the early 1970s, de Villaine and his American wife, Pauline, wanted to live apart from the daily hubbub of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
They found a quiet house in the nearby village of Bouzeron, just two kilometres south of the Côte-d’Or appellations of Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, and a short drive to their other, more famous property. The small estate came with a vineyard that yielded some very good Aligoté.
For the past 15 years, Domaine de Villaine has been run by nephew Pierre de Benoist, who has become a potent spokeperson for the variety. The ancient vineyard was planted with Aligoté Doré, a pre-phylloxera variety, for which de Benoist now has established a nursery to preserve and promote the old vines.
Bouzeron is also the only village in all of Burgundy where Aligoté is grown on the slopes. Everywhere else, it is relegated to the flattest and lowest vineyards, while the better locations are saved for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
"In the old days, [Aligoté] had a bad reputation; it was the lowest grade of wine. You had to put Crème de Cassis into it to drink it," says Aurélie Nudant of Domaine Nudant in the village of Ladoix-Serrigny. "Today, we work Aligoté the same way we work the Chardonnay grapes, in the vineyard and in the winery. So, it's really two separate grape varieties that are as good as each other."
One grower I met spoke of Aligoté's renaissance over the past few decades, particularly as regional temperatures have risen, and a new generation of growers has shown interest. An association of young growers called Les Aligoteurs was formed a few years ago in Burgundy. They organize tasting events throughout the region and promote the variety on Facebook.
At Château de la Greffière, young Xavier Greuzard sums up his feelings:
"For one thing, you always know what you have in your glass. It is always crisp and fresh with tremendous tension, no matter who the producer is. Every Aligoté wine has this crispness. With Chardonnay, you can pick early, you can pick late — or anywhere in between. Chardonnay can vary from producer to producer. With Aligoté, you always get a fresh wine with high acidity ... perfect for seafood."
Stéphane Ponsard inherited a few acres of Aligoté. He now runs his father-in-law’s Domaine Claude Nouveau in the heart of Côte de Beaune. It would have been easy to replant with Pinot Noir, but Ponsard chose to keep the Aligoté. "I grow it because it makes a wine that is relatively dry, relatively acidic, and that pairs brilliantly with seafood and grilled fish."
Estelle Prunier of Domaine Michel Prunier et Fille in the village of Auxey-Duresses likes to serve it alongside rich foods with garlic and parsley, like Jambon persillé (a rich, garlicky ham terrine) or Escargots à la Bourguignonne (snails in a garlic-herb butter). "The acidity in the Aligoté easily cuts through strong flavours," she says, adding, "I also serve it with shellfish like oysters and scallops, where there is a higher iodine content, whereas I prefer Chardonnay for fish and the sweeter meats of seafood like shrimps, langoustines or lobster."
De Benoist, who loves to pair the wine with bone marrow, recommends serving Aligoté fresh as an aperitif. In classic French wine rhapsodizing, he describes his top Aligoté experience:
"The wine arrives to a kind of verticality and escapes the Earth's gravity, which allows it to express a celestial expression of the terroir, which is always more complex and dense."
Now that wine lovers have another grape from Burgundy to swoon over, let’s see if it’s possible to out-rhapsodize the French winemaker.
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