Burgundy’s underdog grape
France’s Burgundy wine region is fertile terroir, its unique limestone, marl and clay soils producing some of the world’s most spectacular Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. But another classic white grape shares its ancestral home with these flagship varietals — the often-overlooked and sometimes under appreciated Aligoté. Though it may lack the blockbuster appeal of its rivals and is a bit rare on wine shop shelves, it’s still worth seeking out.
Flourishing in the region since the 18th century, Aligoté shares its genetic history with its more popular cousin Chardonnay and at one time thrived alongside it with equal prominence. But Aligoté has a problem: because it ripens late, it’s more at risk for late harvest rains that can cause the fruit to rot. As a result, over time it was relegated to underdog status.
Today Burgundian winegrowers allocate Aligoté vines to the less prestigious tops and bottoms of slopes, leaving the prized middle parcels for the easier-to-grow Chardonnay. The only exception is the small village of Bouzeron in the Côte Chalonnaise subregion, where Aligoté has been granted its own appellation and where it finds its best expression. Since the grape is quite tolerant of cold weather,
it is more commonly grown in eastern Europe (where it is popular as both table and sparkling wine), Canada, Washington State and Oregon.
Because of its naturally high acidity, Aligoté has been used as a blending wine to add structure and aroma to Chardonnay and Sacy. It also provides the backbone for the sparkling wine Crémant de Bourgogne and, if mixed with Crème de Cassis (black currant liqueur), the traditional wine cocktail, Kir.
In the glass, Aligoté catches the eye with its pale golden color and when swirled offers up a superb but delicate nose of white flowers, apples, pears, stone fruits and citrus. On the tongue, the supple palate zings with vivacious, fresh acidity and the wine’s characteristic apple and lemon flavors meld with undercurrents of a flinty minerality on the refreshing finish.
This is a wine meant to be consumed young (two or three years), although some winemakers are barrel-fermenting and aging Aligoté to tame the acidity to create a more complex style.
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