Aligoté Has Terroir

“In the past, aligoté was planted at the top of Chambertin! Musigny blanc was half aligoté! It was half of Corton! After phylloxera, most replanted with easier-to-grow chardonnay and put aligoté on the other side of the road where no one ever planted anything but carrots and potatoes. This was the sad story of ruined aligoté.” Laurent Ponsot, to Alice Feiring

Why do grapes become underdogs? Why are some varieties ripped out of prized sites? It’s not merely a question of straight meritocracy, of higher-quality vines triumphing. Aligoté fell out of favor not because it was bad, but because it was difficult. It was exiled to the land of carrots and potatoes out of convenience. The high-yielding, overcropped clones that were planted and indifferently farmed led to screechy wines that wine guides from the ’90s and French consumers still think are good for nothing but mixing with crème de cassis.

It’s often hard to tell, even for geeky lovers of aligoté’s underdog status, where the wine is actually coming from. Line up the best aligotés on the planet and nearly all of them will be simply labelled “Bourgogne.” It’s no wonder that even when we declare our love for aligoté’s green streak, its almond-paste textural quality, it’s freshness and dimension, that we often still don’t give it credit for being able to express place.

Years ago while working with the list at Rouge Tomate, I took my obsession to new levels, looked at the growers farming aligoté that I loved, and arranged them north to south, finding planting dates and vineyard locations when I could.

What I’ve found in sorting, and tasting, these wines? A sense of place that goes beyond grape variety.

Aligoté is harder to fit into a stylistic box than chardonnay. It’s more stubborn, more prickly, sharper-cornered. Paradoxically, I’d argue that makes it harder for a winemaker to do whatever they want with it. Growers have to listen. You’ll still feel the touch of the person making it, but that’s true of pinot noir and chardonnay, too. Aligoté has terroir. Living soils, careful farming, and a light hand in the cellar can reveal what it has to say.

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Class was on Monday, January 4. These were the wines:

How you might see it on a wine list:
David Trousselle, Bourgogne Aligoté, Burgundy, France 2019


Who made it? David Trousselle
Out of what? A single 1.67 ha parcel of organically farmed aligoté planted in 1990 in the village of Orches, in the Hauts-Côtes-de-Beaune (uphill and southwest of St.-Romain)
Made how? Fermented in temperature-controlled steel and aged for a year in used oak.

How you might see it on a wine list:
Jean-Philippe Fichet, Bourgogne Aligoté, Burgundy, France 2018

Who made it? Jean-Philippe Fichet
Out of what? Purchased fruit, but the core is a plot replanted in 1991 in Meursault.
Made how? Fermented in barrel and tank, and aged in tank.

How you might see it on a wine list
Domaine Arlaud, Bourgogne Aligoté, Burgundy, France 2018

Who made it? Cyprien Arlaud
Out of what? Certified biodynamic 40-plus year-old vines somewhere in the Côtes des Nuits. (It is always difficult to get sourcing for aligoté but I am guessing based on this blog from a wine writer who picks for Arlaud that the plots are largely scattered around Morey.)
Made how? Fermented and aged in tank.

What we looked for (and what you can look for the next time you drink a bottle of aligoté at home):

Acidity. How does your mouth water? What’s the drool factor? What’s the shape of the acidity, where does it hit?

Texture. For a lean, high-acid variety, there’s a surprising weight and feel on the midpalate to a lot of these wines. We talked about almond paste and hazelnuts, pear skin and crunchy green vegetables, cream and satin.

Aromatics. Aligoté is not effusively perfumed or pungent, but it’s still more aromatic than chardonnay. Marzipan, or citrus trees, or fruit blossoms? Salt, or flint, or bruised fruit, or nuts?

How would this taste if we called it ‘white Burgundy’? Meursault should be more intense, richer, more hazelnutty than the lean, exposed, higher Hauts-Côtes. White Burgundy from the Côte de Nuits (when you find it!) often has a bruised, darker, richer intensity to it, from the different clays. Sometimes it almost plays at being oxidative before clearing up. All of these wines say “Bourgogne Aligoté” on the label, but if you think of them as coming from their villages, the fact that they all felt completely distinct makes a lot more sense. Try it at home!

Further reading

“Aligoté, Burgundy’s Other White Grape, Makes Its Case,” Eric Asimov, New York Times (July 6, 2017)

“Aligoté’s Return,” Alice Feiring, World of Fine Wine (2012)

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