Burgundy is most famous for its impeccable and highly regarded pinot noirs (reds) and chardonnays (whites) but little attention is paid to the smaller plantings of other varietals with official status in specific areas within its Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC).
Extremely small amounts of sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris are grown in the Saint-Bris AOC near Chablis in the north. Aligoté is primarily from the south and the second most planted white grape of Burgundy, but with less than 15 percent of chardonnay’s planted acreage it ranks far behind its more glamorous sister.
Outside of France (there’s also some grown in parts of the Rhone), aligoté is far better known and ranks in the top 20 or so most planted wine grapes in the world. Being quite resistant to cold and mold, it finds a welcome home in Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Romania and others) as well as Washington state, a few precious acres in California and newer plantings elsewhere in the New World. Aligotés display bracing acidity, intense minerality, complex citrus flavors often with tropical notes and are generally meant to be consumed young.
Bouzeron (located in Côte Chalonnais) is the only AOC in Burgundy devoted to aligoté where the wines produced are entitled to use the appellation name on the label. All other aligotés produced in Burgundy are relegated to a lesser status and must be labeled as Bourgogne Aligoté.
The grape is also used as a blending component of Crémant de Bourgogne, the well known sparkling wine of Burgundy. In France, aligoté may be best known as the traditional base wine for the famous cocktail Kir where it’s mixed with Crème de Cassis and enjoyed as an aperitif before the meal.
Since aligoté trails chardonnay in name recognition, fame and value, it is usually relegated to the lesser growing areas of Burgundy and often seen at the either the top or bottom of slopes where chardonnay typically does not thrive. Being a heartier varietal and maturing earlier than chardonnay, aligoté is better suited for these less important areas while still offering the grower and/or Domaine a financial return on the land.
Last year, I was visiting owner/winemaker Jacky Young at Young Inglewood Vineyards in St. Helena when we happened on a small block to the west side of the vineyard. Jacky says she is a “Burgundy nut,” and knowing chardonnay would not do well in their site, she opted, with great difficulty, to source a few aligoté vines for a one-third acre block. Jacky produced the first vintage in 2015 from three-year old vines and had to hand-squeeze the grapes as the quantity was too small for the mechanical press.
Only 10 cases resulted from the 2015 harvest but things are looking up for 2016 where a whopping 20 cases have been bottled.
During my visit, I purchased a bottle of the 2015 and put it in the cellar. A couple weeks ago, I retrieved that bottle and enjoyed it with linguini and clams ala olio. The pairing was perfect! There were subtle hints of white peach and nectarine along with tropical notes and citrus on both the nose and palate. The palate was further enhanced by bright acidity, powerful minerality, and sensual mouthfeel similar to a Grand Cru Chablis. The seemingly endless finish revisited all of the senses on the nose and palate in a tapestry of layered complexity.
I was hooked on the varietal and called my old friend Josh Jensen, owner and winemaker of Calera, located high on Mount Harlan in the Gavilan Mountain Range east of Monterey.
Josh is a world-renowned expert on the growing and vinification of Burgundian varietals. At Calera, he produces highly acclaimed pinots and chardonnays and is also well known for his aligoté despite the minuscule quantities produced (31 cases from his 330 vines in the 2014 vintage).
Several years ago, Josh was faced with a problem on a specific pinot noir block that was yielding high crop levels of fruit not up to his self-imposed quality standards. Following Burgundian custom, he budded over two rows at the bottom of the slope with aligoté launching this varietal in his portfolio.
I ordered a few bottles of 2014 Calera Aligoté and enjoyed this splendid wine last week. Although made in a different style than the Young Inglewood, it, too, was a delightful wine sharing the common aligoté attributes of a luscious mouthfeel, finely tuned acidity and forceful minerality. The varietal’s signature citrus and tropical character was clearly evident accented by notes of spice and dried rose petals on the nose. The wine finished beautifully with an even greater expression of tropical guava, trangy spice and citrus.
There’s no question that aligoté is flying well under the radar and not seen in the same arena as chardonnay when looking at its Burgundian roots. But there is a brighter side for this modest varietal when considering the opinion of many that if grown in the finer areas of Burgundy, aligoté is capable of producing a wine of far greater character that could rival chardonnay with a depth of structure, balance and excitement.
Aligoté has become another favorite of mine, and as Dave McIntyre (Wine and Food columnist for the Washington Post) once stated, “ Aligoté is a wine for the explorer spirit.” Well said Dave and definitely worth the exploration!