Every underdog has its day – Aligoté, Burgundy’s lesser-known grape

Posted by admin | September 1, 2020 | Blog

When something is difficult, it’s often a sign that it is worth doing. Sometimes, you know you’re onto a good thing because it’s tough. And while this may be a general truism, it’s particularly apt when you’re talking about Aligoté, the second white grape of Burgundy. It’s always been a hard sell, irregular in quality, and hence often described as a ‘small wine’, unlike its more famous (and more compliant) cousin Chardonnay.

Aligoté is the offspring of the Pinot and Gouais Blanc grapes. It is popular with the wine growers of Eastern Europe – not traditionally people who are used to taking the easy road in life. They grow it in thousands of acres in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine, with a very devoted following. Switzerland grows it, and California too, sometimes mixed with Semillon or Riesling. It makes great wines in France, too, and while its reputation still has a way to go, there is a palpable move toward quality and a groundswell of enthusiasm for the grape.

You do, of course, still find sub-standard Aligoté, and that in turn continues to push the notion that it is sub-standard by nature. But why? What’s responsible for this below-par rep? Well, for starters, Aligoté is perhaps best known as the wine used in kir, and the old story goes that the wine was so bad it had to be brightened up with cassis, a blackcurrant liqueur. Because of this reputation, it’s never really been thought of as an enjoyable wine on its own, even though there have most certainly always been good and even great Aligotés. In fact, it’s fair to say that it has been a victim of bad press, with some critics calling it ‘thin’, or ‘acidic’. And that in turn became a self-perpetuated dynamic.

Ironically, despite having a long history of plantation in Burgundy (first planted in the 17th century), it was when the appellation Bourgogne Aligoté was codified in 1937 that the downward spiral began. Under the new wine laws, it was no longer allowed to plant Aligoté in grand cru vineyards. So as Chardonnay rose to grand cru level, and developed the reputation it has to this day for finesse and elegance, Aligoté got relegated to inferior vineyards on flatter ground where it, quite simply, does not do well. Winemakers would understandably choose to plant the more profitable Chardonnay in any decent parcel. And aligoté, with an unjustified lack of respect, was left behind. Despite its history and the efforts expended in its name, today it accounts for just 6% of all Burgundy wines. 

But some French producers have been making great Aligoté wines for years, if you know where to look – and Elden Selections certainly does. We offer superb wines from producers including Julien Cruchandeau, something of a flag-bearer for lesser-known appellations, who has taken on the Aligoté grape as a badge of honor; and the Domaine Borgeot who have long championed the varietal.

So Aligoté has its promoters. Let’s not forget that in one appellation – the Appellation Bouzeron – they chose Aligoté over Chardonnay or Pinot Noir as their grape. It was a radical move, spearheaded by the elder statesman of Burgundy wine, Aubert De Villaine, owner of Domaine Romanée-Conti, and it was meant to give Aligoté the respect and reputation it deserves.

Now a new group, calling themselves Les Aligoteurs, is doing its bit to help further the cause of Aligoté. So who are they?  Founded in 2018 by chefs and winegrowers in Burgundy, Les Aligoteurs is a small group who run tastings and events to try to encourage the production of Aligoté. Founding member and chef Philippe Delacourcelle has over a dozen Aligoté wines on his restaurant’s ever-popular menu. (The word Aligoteurs is a contraction of two words, ‘Aligoté’ and ‘authors’, and is a play on the word ‘alligator’, which is also their mascot.)

There are two types of Aligoté – the doré variety grown around Bouzeron (golden and aromatic with a small yield) and vert, used almost everywhere else in Burgundy. Both have different flavor profiles. Food matches, as well as the usual suspects like fish and crab, also include such exciting pairing possibilities as gyoza (Japanese dumplings) and tabbouleh, as well as regional delicacies such as escargot and ham. Aligoté rewards hard work and provides a new in-road to Burgundy wine for those who think they’ve discovered everything there is to know about the region. If, like Les Aligoteurs, you trust in the potential of Aligoté, it just might surprise you – and show you something new and exciting.