Crib Sheet: Getting to Know Aligoté, the Bernie Sanders of Burgundian Grapes

Welcome to "Crib Sheet," your monthly shortcut to what's hot in wine right now, in four bottles, courtesy of Jon Bonné. This month: aligoté, Burgundy's outsider white grape.

aligote crib sheet jon bonne

“The wines have found a place as part of the region’s image, as an essential ingredient in the celebrated Kir.” That’s a fair way to describe aligoté, Burgundy’s other white grape. It’s also a kick in the teeth, considering the source: the official regulations governing its production. As best I can tell, this is the sole reference in French wine law to a cocktail.

A good Kir is nothing to dismiss, but aligoté has a lot more to offer.

Many Burgundians, lest you think they spend their days swaddled in Gucci, Lucious Lyon-style, swilling bottles of Bâtard-Montrachet, share this view. Aligoté is a primal tie to their humbler side—a reminder that their boots are still caked with mud. In fact, ever more of them are translating that sentimental fondness into action, treating aligoté with better respect than economics dictate. In Marsannay, for instance, Sylvain Pataille is set to unveil four single-parcel aligotés, all aged longer than his chardonnay, including one from Clos du Roy, the town’s most famous plot.

Like many underdogs, aligoté is currently having a moment, recast in a trash-glamour sort of way. At a time when Burgundy has become a totem for the rich, aligoté stands out as its populist wing—the sort of Bernie Sanders of Burgundian varieties.

In a way, growing aligoté in a place like Burgundy is a moral act—especially when you consider that the game has been stacked against it since 1937, when authorities created the Bourgogne Aligoté appellation. The move acknowledged the grape’s prominence, but also banished its use in nearly every other appellation, effectively ghettoizing it in favor of chardonnay (which, incidentally, shares its parentage with aligoté).

Today it can be difficult to sum up what aligoté tastes like—in part because it was, and still is, grown to excessive yields and is rarely a candidate for good farming or superior cultivars. (Pataille is blunt: “The clones they use give you crap.”) But good aligoté, treated with the same care as the region’s chardonnays, is similarly sensitive to locale. The versions grown near Chablis can be more flinty and stark than the plusher versions found near Meursault. Always, though, it’s more mineral than fruity in its flavors. “Guided by rocks,” say my notes from one bottle; if aligoté put out an album, that would be its title. It often shows a fresh aspect not unlike raindrops (sometimes, specifically, like petrichor). And the acidity is, yes, unavoidable, which is why even halfway serious aligoté requires low yields and very ripe grapes to root an identity beyond tartness.

Fortunately, it’s getting a lot more help on that front. Give some credit to the global warming that’s boosting ripeness throughout Burgundy, especially in once-marginal growing areas, like the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits. That’s where you locate winemakers like Claire Naudin, who makes wines using both naturalist and more conventional protocols—including excellent aligoté, both ways.

Aligoté has gotten a boost from young, earnest winemakers in Burgundy’s best villages, who not only share that local fondness for the grape but also acknowledge that their friends can’t really afford the region’s fancier wines—most notably, Fanny Sabre, based in Pommard, and Nicolas Faure, who previously tended vines for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. You’ll also find hallowed names—Jean-Marc Roulot, Michel Lafarge, Domaine Ramonet—who make an aligoté each year.

These wines aren’t exactly from Burgundy’s back 40, either. Benoît Ente produces one of the region’s best examples from parcels just east of Puligny, while François Mikulski’s old vines from 1948 sit nearby, slightly downslope from the famous Meursault-Charmes. And until it was ripped out in the early 1970s—to make way for chardonnay, naturally—aligoté was being grown on the famous hill of Corton by none other than Bonneau du Martray, the only domaine in Burgundy to make solely grand cru wine. Actually, it remains in very important ground today: the Monts Luisants parcel of Morey-Saint-Denis, where Domaine Ponsot makes the only premier cru aligoté in Burgundy.

The most devoted stronghold of aligoté (which has also found love outside of Burgundy, notably in Savoie) can be found in the village of Bouzeron, located in the Côte Chalonnaise just south of Burgundy’s heart. Bouzeron is France’s only appellation based on the grape, thanks in part to aligoté’s historic use there dating to the 18th century, and possibly earlier—although the appellation was only granted in 1979.

Bouzeron’s status has been elevated by its best-known landowner: Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Domaine de Villaine, founded in the 1970s, has become a beacon for aligoté’s good name. And for the maker of the world’s most expensive wines to commit himself to such a reputedly lowly grape says much about Burgundy’s quiet adoration of it—and how it deserves this bump of newfound respect.

The Classic

2014 Domaine de Villaine Bouzeron | $36
The Villaine property today is run by Pierre de Benoist, Aubert de Villaine’s nephew, who has become one of the most visible advocates for aligoté. (The organically farmed estate also makes reds and chardonnay-based whites.) What helps Bouzeron in part is the high proportion of limestone in relatively thin soil, which may underscore the brighter, stony side of aligoté, which is in full effect in this latest vintage, bolstered by riper fruit flavors than aligoté often has, plus a yellow mustard-seed spice. Those fuller flavors also might be due to the use of aligoté doré, a higher-quality cultivar that provides riper flavors and lower yields.

If anything, the Bouzeron might be a victim of its own success. Villaine has long cast this as an everyday alternative to fancier stuff; it now has such a dedicated fan base that prices are approaching $40, which isn’t quite everyday. (Unless you’re Lucious.) Importer: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant [Buy]

See also: Domaine Roulot, Michel Lafarge, Domaine Ramonet, François Mikulski, Antoine Jobard and, yes, Coche-Dury

The Discovery

2014 Benoît Ente Bourgogne Aligoté | $25
Ente’s estate in Puligny remains slightly under the radar, perhaps because most of the fruit was sold to Louis Latour until 1997. In any case, Benoît is producing exceptional whites that have, as he aptly puts it, “volume but not fat.” And that includes his aligoté, which comes from a mix of older and younger vines in three parcels east of the main road in Puligny. The 2013 is still current in the U.S., which is fine because that volume—generous, accented by sea salt and ginger flavors—is better after a couple years.

Crucially, Ente is notably cognizant of the importance of this wine and makes it in an accordingly serious way. “My grandfather told me,” he said, as we tasted aligoté one day in his kitchen, “on the hills in the premier crus, you’d find aligoté after World War II. Because it produced well, it was what they drank in those days.” Importer: DNS Wines [Buy]

See also: Fanny Sabre, Sylvain Pataille, Didier Fornerol, Antoine Lienhardt

The Outlier

2014 Alice & Olivier De Moor Plantation 1902 Bourgogne Aligoté | $27
Aligoté has a relatively happy home up north near Chablis, and this comes from the De Moors’ miniscule planting near Saint-Bris-le-Vineux (home to Burgundy’s only sauvignon blanc, but that’s another story), which dates to, yes, 1902. While this couple is better known for their Chablis, their several aligotés have made them into two of Burgundy’s great defenders of the grape. Their minimalist approach in the cellar—native yeasts, mostly old casks—further underscores that commitment.

At its best, the 1902 is a quintessential example of how good aligoté should taste. It’s grown on the same sort of Jurassic-era limestone found in Chablis and southern Champagne, hence a pop of crushed oyster-shell minerality, along with an intense lemony flavor and a mellow, fleshy winter-melon sort of fruitiness. Also look for their regular aligoté and young-drinking À Ligoter. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections [Buy]

See also: Goisot, Cave de Buxy, Domaine de Vens-le-Haut (Savoie)

The Naturalist

2013 Claire Naudin Le Clou 34 Vin de France | $35
While there’s great pleasure in Naudin’s more traditional aligoté, bottled under Domaine Naudin-Ferrand, it’s easy to see why her Clou 34 has found a modern audience: no sulfur dioxide, for one thing (versus a bit in the Bourgogne Aligoté), a choice which can make a white wine plumper, but here actually adds precision. There’s still plenty of texture—more than enough to match chardonnay—but with a distinctly savory side.

A debate persists as to just what the Hautes-Côtes area can offer Burgundy, given its lower land costs. Naudin’s old vines of aligoté sit west of, and higher up than, Côte d’Or vineyards—yet they’re only about four kilometers from the hill of Corton. It’s a potentially impressive neighborhood for aligoté. Importer: MC2/Metropolis [Buy]

See also: Nicolas Faure, Julien Altaber, Céline & Laurent Tripoz (sparkling), Yann Durieux