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The rise of Aligoté

Published: 6th December 2023

 

SIX-MINUTE READ


 

Adam Bruntlett, Burgundy Buyer

It’s Burgundy’s second most planted white grape and is often seen as second-rate. But there’s an Aligoté renaissance taking place, says Adam Bruntlett


Aligoté is the second most planted white grape in Burgundy. Given the ubiquity of Chardonnay, however, this is a bit like being the second most successful solo artist in Simon & Garfunkel. It’s got something of a chequered past, and many people regard it as second-rate, capable only of producing neutral wines of limited interest. Indeed, its main claim to fame is probably its starring role in the Kir cocktail. And yet, Aligoté is an increasingly important grape in Burgundy today.


PAYING THE PRICE

 

The story of Aligoté is one of vicious cycles. There’s a commercial reality to consider: Aligoté is far less valuable than Chardonnay, both in terms of the grapes and the wines they produce. As such, Aligoté has historically been planted in lesser sites throughout Burgundy, particularly in cold areas where there was little chance of the grapes achieving full ripeness.

Making matters worse, the relatively low price achieved for Aligoté incentivized growers to prioritise quantity over quality; there was little to no premium paid for riper fruit. This led to a plethora of dilute, acidic wines, perpetuating even further the downward spiral – consumer perception plummeting with every disappointing bottle. Aligoté’s less-than-stellar reputation in many circles is derived from this overcropped, underripe style.

Plantings of Aligoté have consequently been on the wane for some time across Burgundy, with growers favouring instead the more profitable Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.

ENTER THE ALIGOTEURS

 

A small number of conscientious growers have produced good examples of Aligoté for some time, though they have typically been the exception rather than the rule. To its credit, the grape has high natural acidity; it can be a key component in sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne. It was often co-planted with Chardonnay, to give the resulting wines extra freshness. And it retains modest levels of alcohol, even in the hot, dry summers we have seen in recent vintages.

“A determined band of vignerons are aiming to promote quality, terroir-focused expressions of Aligoté”

There has been something of a reappraisal of the variety lately, however: a determined band of vignerons are aiming to promote quality, terroir-focused expressions of Aligoté. Chief among them are the self-styled “Aligoteurs”.

Our friend Laurent Fournier of Marsannay is a founding member of the Aligoteurs group, created in 2018 and now numbering almost 70 producers. They hold an annual tasting at their base in Flagey-Echézeaux to share their wines and ideas, and ultimately to promote high-quality Aligoté.

There is also a more ambitious style which has emerged recently. Like Chardonnay, Aligoté is considered a non-aromatic grape variety – it does not produce a significant amount of fruit character or flavour. As such, it can respond well to winemaking techniques like lees stirring and the judicious use of oak for fermentation and ageing. Bastien Gautheron of Maison Gautheron d’Anost, another Aligoteur and new to our range, uses a small proportion of new oak.

As well as high acidity and citrus fruit character, I find Aligoté often has a distinctly silky texture. When I look back through old tasting notes, I see that I have frequently found an almond or oatmeal character, too.

THE SECRET TO SUCCESS?

 

Looking at some of the most characterful and successful examples would indicate that picking Aligoté grapes later than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is key – sometimes by a few weeks or in some cases almost a month.

This is an argument espoused by the likes of Paul Zinetti at Comte Armand and the Lafarge family in Volnay. The latter even call their Aligoté “Raisins Dorés” in recognition of the deep gold colour of their fruit when it is picked. In both cases, a small team of pickers, usually made up of the family and permanent employees, is sent to pick the Aligoté several weeks after the main harvest has ended.

There are many plantings of old-vine Aligoté in Burgundy. Older plants yield small, rich and golden grapes (often referred to as “Aligoté Doré” by the locals) as opposed to the luminous green often seen from younger vines.

LABELS TO LOOK FOR

 

Aligoté has not always been perceived as inferior. It has its own dedicated village appellation: Bouzeron in the Côte Chalonnaise. Maximum yields are restricted by law to a modest level and minimum planting densities are reassuringly high; both measures help ensure the grapes are concentrated rather than watery and dilute.

Such is the quality of the Aligoté produced in the small, sunny valley of Bouzeron that Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti purchased vineyards here many years ago. Bastien Gautheron also makes a lovely example.

The grape also has its own regional appellation, the fruit for which can be sourced from throughout Burgundy; these wines are labelled Bourgogne Aligoté.

PRODUCERS LEADING THE WAY

 

Laurent Fournier is such a fan of Aligoté that he produces three different examples. The excellent Les Boutières Vieilles Vignes is made from vines planted in the 1920s in a special site in Savigny-lès-Beaune, on the border with Pernand-Vergelesses. It offers up a wonderful mix of tropical fruit and spine-tingling tension.

“There is certainly a buzz around Aligoté. Many growers are keen to talk about it”

Laurent is in good company. Other Aligoteurs producing excellent examples include Thibault Liger-Belair, whose Clos des Perrières la Combe undergoes a week of skin contact for extra texture and flavour; Fabien Coche, working with old vines in Meursault; Domaine Rollin, whose Aligoté has a Chablis-like character with iodine and oyster shell notes; and Michel Lafarge, with their old-vine Aligoté grown in Volnay.

Although Claire Naudin is not a member of the Aligoteurs, her Le Clou 34 is arguably one of the finest Aligoté wines there is. It was deemed by the authorities to be so atypical of the variety that it regularly failed the blind tasting for official Bourgogne Aligoté status. As a result, and because of the poor historic reputation of the grape, Claire now labels it a Vin de France. The fruit comes from several parcels, each over 60 years old, with the oldest planted in 1934 (hence the name). It is viscous and dense, retaining that stinging Aligoté tension while it coats the palate with orchard fruit.

There is certainly a buzz around Aligoté. Many of our growers are keen to talk about it, including Benjamin Leroux. During a recent visit, it became clear that he has big ambitions for the grape: he thinks he may begin planting it among the Chardonnay in his various vineyards, to bring extra freshness in the face of riper vintages. There was even a suggestion that this might include his prized sliver of Bâtard-Montrachet. I’m not sure where it’ll all go, but with passionate people working on it, I’m sure there is a bright future for Aligoté.