Some years ago now I attended a “bring your own bottles” Burgundy Lunch, and was seated on a table with some genuine experts in the region’s wines. The red I took was a safe bet because I’d sourced it from a fellow diner, a wine merchant and writer on the region. The white was made by Coche-Dury, but it didn’t go down so well. You see, in my inimitable way I’d decided to mix it up a bit and had taken a Coche-Dury Aligoté. I’m positive one person used the term “battery acid”, and only slightly tongue in cheek.
Aligoté appears to have its origins in wine literature in the Eighteenth Century, as a natural crossing between Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir, the former being also a parent of Chardonnay, so the two grapes are half-siblings. Burgundy is its home, and although its plantings (less than 2,000 hectares) are way less than Chardonnay (of which there is at least six times as many hectares), it remains relatively stable. This might surprise those who would assume it would give way to the much more profitable Chardonnay nowadays, but I think that in a region where traditions still hold, there is a desire to continue the tradition of a second white grape variety, albeit usually planted on the margins of any estate.
Although the comment I related above is indeed unfair in relation to Coche-Dury, there is no escaping the fact that Aligoté can be a very high acid grape, not least when cropped at high yields, as it can so easily. Many people still think it is only fit to be made into a kir by the addition of crème de cassis, its somewhat traditional use in the region. At best, Aligoté has been damned with faint praise. If I might quote Jancis Robinson from the seminal Vines, Grapes, Wines (Mitchell Beazley, 1986):
“Aligoté is to Chardonnay what Silvaner is to Riesling: a poor copy…with notably more acid, less body and much less ageing capacity”
I’d accept, to a degree, all but the last proposition. Jancis goes on to say (the faint praise):
“That said, just as exceptionally fine Silvaners can be found in Germany, so Burgundy occasionally yields up a genuinely toothsome Aligoté“.
To be fair, this was written back in the 1980s, and was probably reasonable comment back then. But Aligoté is now on a roll, and in fact has almost become a cult grape variety. I wonder why?
I think that, aside from the admittedly sometimes nasty Aligoté made commercially from high yields, there are two kinds of wine being produced from the variety. There are those that have always been there, made with care by top producers. They’ve been hidden away. Bottled in relatively small quantity, they are not often shown to visiting wine writers, nor (often) a domaine’s overseas importers. The producer often thinks the visitor won’t be interested in Aligoté (they are often right), but it’s just as likely that they can easily sell all they have to knowing private clients. We’ll talk about some of these, and there are surprisingly many very good ones.
Anthony Hanson, in Burgundy (Faber and Faber, 1982, p74) does suggest that there are, or at least were, a few villages particularly noted for their Aligoté. He cites Pernand, Villers-la-Faye (remember that one), St-Aubin, Chagny, Rully and Bouzeron.
The second kind of wine has been popularised by a mix of the new and dynamic micro-negociants and the equally new breed of natural winemaker in the region. Aligoté has a reputation as a grape no one wants, and if Chardonnay is in very short supply, then it is much easier to pick up some (often unsprayed and old vine) Aligoté. If you can gain enough control over the vineyard to ensure yields are reduced, and if you then vinify the wine with as much care as you do your Premier Cru Chardonnay, then you may just find you’ve made a cracker…as one or two of them have.
Cropped low, Aligoté is capable of greater breadth and depth than we have been used to in the commercial examples we had previously seen. Not only that, the acidity which is the first thing every single critic mentioned in the past, can be toned down to something one would more likely describe as “zippy mineral/stone freshness”.
So where should we look? We have to start with Bouzeron. Even in the 1980s most lovers of Burgundy knew that the co-director of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Aubert de Villaine, and his wife Pamela, had a big reputation for the variety in a Côte Challonaise village which gained its own AOC, Aligoté de Bouzeron in 1979. (It was inexplicably changed to just “Bouzeron” in 1998, presumably to mirror the rest of Burgundy’s village AOPs, but consumers need to be aware they are getting Aligoté, not Chardonnay).
Domaine A&P de Villaine is now (since 2000) run ably by Aubert’s nephew, Pierre de Benoist, who says he feels privileged to have responsibility for this second string variety. This estate does make the best wine in the village, though others would argue they have their equals. Bouzeron as an AOP has plantings of around 50 hectares of Aligoté, mostly planted on various types of limestone (there’s also marl), most definitely the variety’s preferred geology. De Benoist is also trying to preserve a particular strain of Aligoté they have in their vineyards, Aligoté Doré, which he considers superior to your run-of-the-mill Aligoté Vert. Other producers are proving him right.
So what of those older, hidden parcels from the famous domaines? Well the list is long, but worth putting in writing, although I’ll only write more specifically about one or two of them. The most famous Aligoté of all, and as far as I know the most expensive, is made by Ponsot from a plot right above the Morey Grand Cru, Clos de la Roche. The Clos des Monts Luisants would, for all I know, also be a Grand Cru were Aligoté allowed as a GC grape variety (it has to make do with a Premier Cru designation).
If you happen across wines from Hubert and (his son) Laurent Lignier, Arnaud Ente, François Mikulski, Domaine Lafarge (a personal favourite), Comte Armand, Paul Pillot, Domaine Arlaud and Pierre Morey, then take a good look. With Leroy D’Auvenay and Coche you’ll need to check with your bank manager first. In retrospect that Coche needed a lot longer in the cellar, but all of these wines will age a few years, more in a good many cases. They don’t tell you that on the WSET, do they?
Of all the classic Aligoté the one I adore most is that of Jean-Marc Roulot. Roulot may be known for Meursault of unbelievable purity, but he’s equally known among aficionados for brilliant wines from lesser terroirs. His Bourgogne Blanc is legendary, if increasingly unaffordable, and his Monthélie is a secret known only by a relative few. I drank a bottle of Roulot Aligoté 2015 at Noble Rot a few weeks ago. It’s still on the list at £52 (Pierre Morey’s Aligoté 2015 is a touch cheaper at £48), along with a few others in the “Other White Grapes” section: Ramonet (£58), Lafarge (£52), and De Moor (£57), five options in total, making a pretty tasty selection.
Although Roulot wines always have a characteristic rapier-like spine, which makes them stand out in tastings, the perceived acidity here is tempered by vine age and yields. Jean-Marc has just point eight of a hectare of Aligoté, planted by his grandfather. These old vines, up to 80 years old, are farmed organically and yields off clay and limestone kept down. The Aligoté here is both fermented and aged in stainless steel (the only Roulot wine made this way) and it is bottled after a year. For me, it’s a go-to wine to see what the grape is capable of, though as is often the case with restaurant wines, the one we drank was doubtless a shade too young.
My other go-to Aligoté producers from the Côte d’Or might be seen as quite different. Sylvain Pataille has built a domaine from scratch around Marsannay at the very north of the Côte, whilst Claire Naudin took over from her father at Magny-lès-Villers up in the Hautes-Côtes, between Aloxe and Comblanchien, in 1994.
Pataille is pretty much an all round genius considering what he’s achieved since he began vinifying his own wine in 2001. Sylvain is another fan of the lower yielding Aligoté Doré and from it he makes four single vineyard bottlings, namely Clos du Roy, La Charme aux Prêtres, Champ Forey and Auvonnes du Pépé. Vines are up to 80 years old, again, and yields range between 20 to 45 hl/ha (some of that high yielding Aligoté I mentioned yields 80 hl/ha).
Why does Pataille bottle these wines separately? After all, the largest of these sites (Auvonnes) is just 0.8 ha, the rest 0.3 ha approx. His biodynamic methods yield, he asserts, wines of real energy (greater than his Chardonnay in most cases), with an added salinity. Only a little sulphur is added at bottling, and despite their surprising cost they are truly great Côte d’Or wines. And Sylvain genuinely believes they are different enough to compare them, though I’ve not tried them all myself. What I have tried are exceptional.
Claire Naudin also introduced biodynamics at her domaine, and with her Aligoté “Le Clou 34” she goes a step further than Pataille. Bottled as a “Vin de France”, it has no added sulphur whatsoever. This is the Aligoté that many of the new vignerons cite as an inspiration, especially those outside of the immediate region, and of course those practising natural winemaking. It’s maybe broader than some, has perhaps a touch of natural wine baked apple, but it sits on a finely-toned skeleton. The 2016 might set you back a bargain €30/£30 or so, although I don’t personally know of a UK importer (do put me right if there is one).
Outside of the Côte d’Or there is a little Aligoté down south in Burgundy, though somewhat more in the north, in the area around Chablis. One of our favourite Chablis producers, Alice and Olivier De Moor (based in Courgis) makes outstanding Aligoté in, when frosts permit, two cuvées. These can be had, albeit in tiny quantities, via Les Caves de Pyrene. Their Aligoté is actually planted in the village which is the rather unlikely bastion for Sauvignon Blanc in Northern Burgundy, Saint-Bris. The key, again, is in old vines, their half a hectare being planted in 1902.
The domaine of Jean-Hugues and Guilhem Goisot is based in Saint-Bris, and their biodynamic Aligoté is no mere afterthought, sitting alongside fine Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and red cuvées. It actually has some of the fresh mineral qualities often shown by Chardonnay in the region, and at around £17 (available from a good few smaller independents via, again, Les Caves) it’s one of the Aligoté bargains to be had. I bought the wines of this producer early on, when I first discovered Les Caves de Pyrene, but sadly in recent vintages frosts and hail have severely cut back what they have been able to produce.
What of the new micro-negociants? Mark Haisma and Andrew and Emma Nielsen (Le Grappin) both produce exceptional versions. Mark’s has been good for as long as he’s been able to make it, and his 2016, tasted in January this year, is no exception. It’s quite fruity, though equally fresh. Someone said “New World-style” but that may be going too far. It comes in at just 12.5% abv. A very tasty drop.
For Andrew and Emma, Aligoté is a new departure for the 2017 vintage, and it has become one of the summer’s unicorn wines, so little of it was made. Andrew sourced his grapes from “Perelles-le-Haut” in the Macon village of La Roche-Vineuse, a south-facing slope of Bathonian limestone/marl. Again, the vines claim 80 years of age (is this a secret sweet spot?), giving “small yields of orange-tinged berries”.
Andrew’s technique here is a bit of foot stomping (said by some to be Emma’s speciality), basket press, and then moved into large oak for six months on full lees. There’s breadth despite a mere 11.5% alcohol, and you cannot escape “minerality” in its texture. It’s refreshing, yet the acidity is far from biting. A very lovely wine. A skin contact version, Aligoté Skin 2017 was just released at Wine Car Boot a couple of weekends ago. I’ve sadly not tried it, and probably telling you about it may mean it’s all gone by the time I’m back in the UK to get some (Emma, save me a bottle?). £20!
Aligoté’s propensity to produce wines which seem alive when cropped low, farmed biodynamically, and when sulphur is not added, make the variety a godsend in many ways for Burgundy’s natural wine producers, and skin contact should be added to that list. The top of the natural wine producer list, at least for price, might well these days be considered Domaine Prieuré Roch, though I’m not sure where in the UK imports it (Berry Bros and one or two other merchants import a raft of Preuré Roch wines, but I’ve not yet seen Aligoté here. The domaine has its own bistro in Nuits, 22 rue Général de Gaulle).
Nicolas Vaulthier once worked (in fact he was one of the founders) in the famous Aux Crieurs de Vins natural wine bar in Troyes (where you will as likely as not find local star vigneron Emmanuel Laissagne sitting on his day off). Now he makes wine in Coulonges-la-Vineuse up towards Chablis (in fact the village is over the River Yonne from Irancy and Saint-Bris). He makes (as far as I know) two natural Aligoté, Cuvée M (two weeks on skins, minimal sulphur) and Aligoté Bréau (no skin contact).
Also look out for Aligoté from Fanny Sabre, but perhaps the real find when it comes to this oft-maligned grape variety is that made by Yann Durieux under his Love and Pif! label. Yann used to work at Domaine Prieuré Roch, but he now farms 3 ha at Villers-la-Faye in the Hautes Côtes, not so very far from Claire Naudin (I believe the winery is in Messanges, around fifteen minutes’ drive north).
The name? Pif is French slang for wine, so it’s a sort of play on Love and Peace/Love and Wine. Love for the grapes from bud to bottle is the absolute rule here. The wine I suggest you look out for is called Les Ponts Blanc…sometimes listed under the domaine name, Le Recrue des Sens. If you look on Cellartracker you’ll see the confusion people have over this wine. It’s fresh and alive, yet it has a kind of haunting quality. Easily misunderstood, but it’s a cult classic.
The vines are aged around 40 years, planted pretty much up in the hills above Romanée-Conti, not that this should really have any bearing but it’s always mentioned in the merchant blurbs so I thought I’d stick it in, what the heck! They never fail to tell you Yann has dreadlocks either…The vines are on clay-limestone and that is a running theme which perhaps has relevance here, and for Aligoté’s future in other locations. The fact that this super wine is fermented for a couple of weeks on skins has not escaped the eyes of many producers, a bit of a beacon. It’s very pure, even in the warmer 2015 vintage. No sulphur, of course.
Durrieux’s Aligoté alongside rarely seen De Moor at Newcomer Dalston a week ago
What about other locations? Aligoté hasn’t really translated to other parts of France very well. There is said to be a little around Die (Rhône-Alps) but the closest we get to significant (well, relatively) plantings is in the Swiss vineyards of Geneva. Many domaines and the co-operative make a fruity and fresh version, pleasant enough for me to buy but I’ve not yet found anything profound.
Aligoté has translated to Eastern Europe, somehow. Romania has some noted plantings, as does Bulgaria (some readers might just be old enough to recall the wines made here before the fall of Communism where Aligoté was one of the cheaper offerings).
California professes to be home to some Aligoté, although a good proportion of the tiny amount of California-bottled Aligoté seems to come down from Washington State. Calera, which used to be a champion of lesser varieties to a degree (I remember their powerful Viognier in the 1990s), certainly used to bottle some Aligoté, presumably grown locally, but in micro-quantities only available here when a true wine geek brought one back.
Otherwise that’s about it, though the wonderful thing about my readership is that you generally know at least as much as I do, and I’m sure I’ll get a few weird and wonderful suggestions to seek out. Some is rumoured to be planted in Australia, but I’ve no idea where. What of England? I checked the list of varieties Ben Walgate has planted at Tillingham in Sussex, but if Aligoté was among them, I missed it.
Naturally a trip to Burgundy is by far your best bet for sampling Aligoté, but as I suggested above, Noble Rot in London Mid-Town’s Lamb’s Conduit Street has five fine examples on the list. Hardly a decent independent wine shop fails to have one of the wines I’ve mentioned here. The fact that they are few and far between in the supermarkets may be no bad thing. There’s plenty of “battery acid” out there, but more often than not, high cropped Aligoté will just taste of nothing much at all…until you transform it into a kir.
But find one of the wines mentioned above and you might conclude that you’ve hit upon a gem, one of wine’s little secrets that a certain type of wine lover will dismiss out of hand. More fool him (sic). I can assure you that the esteemed producers who make those wines know exactly the quality they have produced. You only need to throw aside prejudice and enjoy. You may also find that this summer quite a lot of other drinkers are doing just that.