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Aligote

April 9, 2010

Aligote is known for making light wines of considerable acidity. Its yields can be higher and it ripens earlier than its upwardly mobile kin, Chardonnay. Chardonnay ripens relatively early, yields moderately and consistently and easily makes intense and balanced wines that age well. Any of its workhorse qualities have done nothing to protect Aligote from encroachment by Chardonnay because Chardonnay can indeed pull its weight. Contemporary growers of Aligote are evidently a relentless cartel as Chardonnay is surely the more profitable white grape and throughout much of the 2oth century plantings of Aligote declined. In her 1986 text Vines, Grapes and Wines Jancis Robinson reported that in France “total plantings had fallen by more than a third to just over 1,000 hectares” but in the third edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine (2006) she reports not only that in the Cote d’Or there were “still nearly 700 ha/1,700 acres at the beginning of the 21st century and almost as much in southern Burgundy” but also that “plantings have increased slightly in Chablis country”. Is this a rare case of a less marketable grape variety gaining some ground? (I wish I had access to some recent French Agricultural Census data, anybody know where to come by that sort of thing?) Few grapes would stand a chance against what is maybe the most recognizable name in the world of wine; the name, Chardonnay, that has been traded as an industrial strength brand at the same time as being proclaimed classic and best suited to hallowed terroir. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have been cultivated widely in Burgundy because they are undoubtedly superior grapes but that is no reason to ignore their forlorn brethren that occupy more humble vineyards in Burgundy. If the number of acres of Aligote has grown in recent years then this is perhaps evidence that wine drinkers and producers are paying enough attention to stimulate diversity in the market.  Maybe Aligote is just lucky to be Burgundian because fans of Burgundy’s wines are all too often looking for the type individuality that, despite the benevolent despotism of Pinot and Chard, Burgundy delivers in spades.

Most of the world’s Aligote is planted in Eastern Europe and ex-Soviet republics. I have not had any and although I’d be psyched to come by some I can’t say I’m particularly inclined to search for any of it.  Any grape can be over-cropped and turned into a diluted mess and I imagine Aligote might more often be slotted for this sort of abuse in places where there’s amply supply of it.

The only problem I might have with ‘Bourgogne Aligote’ is that it seems like you have to go into the $15-$20 range to get a good one. I might find it hard to reach for one when I think that a Loire Valley white in the $10-$15 range might be as diverting as the Aligote but the celebrated wisdom that ‘variety is the spice of life’ is well received on my end so I can’t help but recommend these esoteric gems even though it may encourage some unanticipated parting of  bucks from pockets.

I tried two ‘Bourgogne Aligote’ wines recently and they were both worth the asking price (both around $16-$17). They were also surprisingly different from each other.  The difference was likely due to bottle age, what a difference a year makes when it comes to light weight wines like Aligote. I also want to say that aside from impressions of acidity or minerality nothing about either of these wines is intense, they are both champions of subtlety.

2008 Marc Morey Bourgogne Aligote. Very light yellow green color. Lemon, green apple, chalk. Bracingly high acidity and a distinct minerality. Oysters or a fresh goat cheese were my first thoughts.

2007 Paul Pillot Bourgogne Aligote. Light golden yellow. Quince, citrus oil and hints of honey and raw hazelnuts. Definitely mellower than the Morey. Medium plus acid and a subtle minerality make the wine hum gleefully despite its evolved flavors. The hazelnut really comes through in the finish. Clams, smoked trout or aged goat cheese would be nice.

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