Aligoté: Burgundy’s Other White Grape

White Burgundy is made from Chardonnay, right?  Well, mostly.  There’s another white grape in Bourgogne, Aligoté, that makes zippy, energetic wines perfect for summertime, and ones that are — I might add — are mostly affordable.  Not an afterthought, Bourgogne Aligoté is treated with respect by top end producers, such as Coche-Dury, whose $300+ per bottle rendition is definitely not in the “affordable wine” category.  Nevertheless, a 2014 Bourgogne Aligoté of his that I recently drank did show how beautifully this wine can develop and the heights it can achieve.  Other Bourgogne Aligoté from highly regarded producers, such as Domaine Michel Lafarge, Domaine Pierre Morey, and Domaine Marc Colin et Fils, whose other wines might carry a triple-digit price tag, can be found retailing for under $30 a bottle.  Drinking their Aligoté gives you an insight into their talents and style without breaking the bank.  My friend and Burgundy expert, John Hayes, coined the term “dust buster” for these palate-cleansing wines.

Two other attributes of Aligoté explain its rising popularity among producers and consumers.  Producers embrace it because is perfectly suited to climate change.  Over the past two decades, increasing temperatures have given us the potential for — and frequently the reality of — overripe grapes with low acidity that translate into heavy flabby wines.  Aligoté, a grape with inherently high acidity, makes fresh and lively wines despite the warmth.  In fact, the extra ripeness imparted by warmer growing seasons has aided Aligoté because the thin and vapid ones are mostly now a thing of the past.

Consumers love it because Bourgogne Aligoté is a great wine to drink young to capture its vivacity.  While the Premier and Grand Cru white Burgundies need years or decades to achieve their potential, wines made from Aligoté are terrific young.  Certainly, they can age and develop complexity in even two to three years and more as Coche-Dury’s 2014 demonstrated.  Planted in the right place Aligoté can develop like Chardonnay, as Ponsot’s Morey St. Denis 1er Cru Monts Luisants, which, surprising to many consumers, is made entirely from Aligoté, shows.  It consistently develops enormous complexity with a decade of bottle age.  But, in general, Bourgogne Aligoté from 2018, 2019, and 2020 vintages are a delight to drink now.

Aligoté has a long history in Burgundy.  In the late 19th century, Aligoté grew alongside Chardonnay — and was blended with it — in such revered Grand Crus sites as Corton Charlemagne and Montrachet.  After phylloxera, it fell out of favor and its acreage declined.  Currently, Aligoté represents only about six percent of vineyard plantings in Burgundy and is usually found in less renowned sites.

The appellation, Bourgogne Aligoté, is an anomaly in Bourgogne, the epicenter of terroir-based viticulture, because it is named for the grape, not the site.  The grapes for Bourgogne Aligoté can come from anywhere in Bourgogne, from the Côte Auxerrois in the north near Chablis to Mâcon in the south.  (The French prefer the use of the term Bourgogne, rather than Burgundy because that’s the traditional name of the region.  Plus, in French, the word “burgundy” can be translated as maroon or, Mon Dieu, Bordeaux.)

An exception to the grape-named Bourgogne Aligoté appellation (and this being France, there are always exceptions) is Bouzeron, located just south of the Côte d’Or in the Côte Chalonnaise, an area where Aligoté is the only permitted white grape.  The Aligoté in Bouzeron, Aligoté Doré, differs from the other Aligoté planted in the rest of Bourgogne, according to Ian D’Agata, one of the world’s foremost experts on wine, which might help explain why the wines from Bouzeron carry a place name instead of the more usual, Bourgogne Aligoté moniker.  That said, consumers will find the charms of Aligoté wine throughout Bourgogne.

Before leaving Bouzeron, I would like to recommend some producers there.  Domaine de Villaine, owned by Aubert de Villaine, who is the co-director of Domaine Romanée-Conti, and his wife Pamela, is arguably the top producer in the appellation.  Their 2019 Bouzeron is positively extraordinary, combining haunting floral aspects with a hint of stone fruits and riveting acidity.  It’s concentrated without being heavy (95 points, $40).  The beautifully crafted 2017 Bouzeron from Jadot, under the Domaine Gagey label, was splendid when I had it in 2018.  Though I’ve not had more recent ones from Jadot, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy one of theirs (about $30 — based on that 2017).  Other Bouzeron producers I recommend include Domaine Cruchandeau, Domaine Jean Fréy et Fils, and Christophe Denizot’s Domaine des Moirots.

Just last month, Le Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne (BIVB), the organization that represents Bourgogne wine, hosted a tasting in New York City of an array of Bourgogne Aligoté wines that showed the extraordinary diversity — and quality — of the appellation.  The first set of Bourgogne Aligoté releases were made in the time-honored fashion, that is, stainless fermentation and aging without lees-stirring.  The second set of wines showed the innovation and experimentation producers were embracing both in the vineyard and in the cellar to create Aligoté with more complexity and individuality.  Some growers focused on Aligoté from specific plots that they felt were especially well-suited to the variety, or from old vines, highlighting that information on the label.  Others experimented in the cellar with partial oak fermentation, maybe some lees stirring (bâtonnage, in French), and using a variety of vessels for aging, such as oak barrels, concrete “eggs,” or terracotta amphora.

The contrast between the wines from these two sets was clear.  As a group, the ones made using time-honored techniques for Aligoté were vibrant, highlighting their energy and brightness.  Wines from the other group often, but not always, showed more complexity and weight, but occasionally oakiness overwhelmed the citrus-tinged electric character of Aligoté.  My favorites, Sylvain Pataille’s 2020 “Clos du Roy” and Bichot’s 2020 “Champ Renard,” came from the second group, but overall, I preferred the consistent style and electricity of the ones fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel.

Sylvain Pataille, one of the top producers in Marsannay, emphasizes that his Aligoté is planted in the “Clos du Roy” vineyard there, one of the candidate vineyards for 1er Cru status.  It has a “wow factor” not usually seen with this grape (95 points, $54 for the 2019).  Bichot’s comes from a single site, “Champ Renard,” within their Domaine Adélie estate and has a beguiling complexity without losing any of its electricity (94 points, $27 for the 2019).  Domaine Jean Fournier, another top Marsannay-based producer made an energetic and long 2020 Bourgogne Aligoté from old views planted in the “Champ Forey” lieu-dit in that village (93 points, $32 for the 2019).  Goisot is so consistent that I’ve rarely found a wine of theirs that disappoints.  Their minerally and racy 2020 Bourgogne Aligoté, fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel, certainly doesn’t and is a bargain (93 points, $22).  Another Côte de Nuits-based producer, Manuel Olivier, made a 2020 Bourgogne Aligoté with great depth and structure (93 points, $19 for the 2019).  The very good co-operative in Buxy in the Côte Chalonnaise produced a steely 2020 Bourgogne Aligoté that they label “Silex” after the type of soil in which the vine grows (90 points, $18 for the 2019).

Though I could not find U.S. prices for some of some Bourgogne Aligoté wines, they are still worth bringing to readers’ attention because the availability is ever changing.  Bailly Lapierre, a superb co-operative located near Chablis in the Auxerrois, made a spirited 2020 Bourgogne Aligoté that’s sure to please (93 points, n/a).  (As an aside, they also consistently make a racy and refreshing St.  Bris, another odd-ball Bourgogne appellation that uses the Sauvignon Blanc grape, that is available in the U.S.  Like Bourgogne Aligoté, St. Bris is affordable.  Bailly Lapierre’s are typically invigorating and zesty, perfect for summer.)  Also, from the Auxerrois, the Irancy-based producer P-L and J-F Bersan fashioned a 2018 Bourgogne Aligoté that successfully combines the energy of the variety with the warmth of the vintage that shows very well now (92 points, n/a).  Since they make a consistently stunning line of Irancy, I’d keep my eyes out for their Bourgogne Aligoté.  Domaine Catherine & Claude Maréchal, whose vineyards are in the Côte de Beaune, made a creamy and cutting 2020 Bourgogne Aligoté that has a substantial presence (92 points, n/a).

It’s heartening to see producers taking this grape seriously.  The range of Bourgogne Aligoté provides something for everyone, from a refreshing dust buster to something with a touch more complexity.  So, as usual when choosing wine, especially Bourgogne, its producer, producer, producer.

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 E-mail me your thoughts about Bourgogne wines in general or Bourgogne Aligoté in specific at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein