1 August 2023
Having mainly tasted Aligoté en primeur, my experience of Aligoté has been very limited and was always combined with the anticipation of the ‘greater’ wines to come.
I was aware of the Aligotéurs and I have witnessed the excitement Charles Lachaux and Nicholas Faure have when they talk about Aligoté, but I didn’t share their enthusiasm. Perhaps in despair of my closed-book view, or simply to prove a point, Thomas sent me a bottle by Arnoux Lachaux in January. I have to admit that it was a pleasant surprise.
It didn’t strip my teeth with acidity nor was it watery, it had good fruit concentration and would have fooled me into thinking it was Chardonnay. It resulted in me buying a few bottles of Aligoté with mixed results until I tasted a glass of Sylvain Pataille. I was impressed by the wine and it led to the idea of a hosting an Aligoté evening (Thomas had been suggesting this for ages). The date was set for Friday 4th June.
Aligoté is the result of a crossing between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, making it a sibling to Chardonnay and Gamay. Unlike its parent Pinot Noir, Aligoté is a vigorous vine (far more vigorous that Chardonnay) that buds early, putting it at risk of spring frost. It is a true Burgundian grape and a historical grape. Jancis Robinson MW in her book Wine Grapes writes that the first likely reference to Aligoté was in 1780 by Dupre de Saint-Maur ‘under the name Plant de Trois, an old synonym referring to the fact that its branches usually bear three bunches each’.
It accounts for 6% of all vines in Burgundy (about 1ha or 24 ouvrées according to the Vins de Bourgogne). According to Jancis, the vineyard area planted to Aligoté in France is about the same as it was 50 years ago, despite a dip in the 1980s. It is mainly grown in Burgundy: from the southern end, throughout the Cote d’Or as well as in Chablis.
The natural high acidity means that the best should be grown on prime sites that encourage ripeness, but these are sites usually reserved for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Anthony Hanson in 1982 suggested that Aligoté fared well in a few Burgundian villages, including Pernand, Villers-la-Faye, St-Aubin, Chagny, Rully and Bouzeron. The Bourgogne Aligoté AOC was granted in 1927. Bouzeron, the only Burgundian village dedicated to Aligoté, was recognised as the only village AOC in 1979 after Aubert de Villaine and his wife Pamela fought tirelessly to have it recognised as such. The original AOC ‘Aligoté de Bouzeron AOC’ was changed simply to ‘Bouzeron’ in 1998. It is the only place where there is a maximum legal yield for Aligoté at 45hl/ha. It can be found elsewhere in the world. The OIV shows that it is extremely popular in Eastern Europe, where it is far more dominant than in France. There are small clusters of Aligoté in the New World, planted by true Burgundy enthusiasts like the late Jim Clendenen, but not sufficient to be even noted by the OIV.
The key characteristic is that it is naturally high in acidity. As a result, with high yields this can create an insipid highly acidic wine (probably best matched with kir). Yet, this acidity is also its greatest asset. It can create a nervy or mineral core, which balanced by the richness of the wine has the power to create truly great wine. With an eye on global warming, it comes as no surprise that the Burgundians are increasingly focussing on this variety.
Finally….The Aligoteurs! The Aligoteurs is an organisation founded in 2018 to celebrate, promote and preserve Aligoté. It was founded by chef Philippe Delacourcelle as well as the winegrowers Sylvain Pataille, Laurent Fournier, Pablo Chevrot, Jérôme Galeyrand, Manuel Olivier, Anne Morey and Nicolas Faure and today counts about 50 growers among its members. It is a great place to start any research on the variety.
Head of Private Client Sales