The Rise of Burgundy's Other White Wine

Aligoté has always been a part of Burgundy's vineyards, but overshadowed by Chardonnay.
© Bourgogne Wines | Aligoté has always been a part of Burgundy's vineyards, but overshadowed by Chardonnay.
Chardonnay has long dominated in Burgundy, but local vignerons are now promoting Aligoté, too.
By Vicki Denig | Posted Thursday, 19-Nov-2020

It was the pure and intensely terroir-reflective Aligoté of Domaine d’Auvenay, produced by Lalou Bize-Leroy, that inspired Charles Lachaux (Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux) to dive deeper into this variety.

"At the estate, we always had Aligoté vines, though we sold off the grapes. I said to myself, why not try vinifying them?"

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Unlike many Burgundian vignerons who cultivate both Aligoté and Chardonnay, Lachaux only works with the former. Today, Lachaux's Aligoté is becoming one of the most in-demand expressions coming out of the region. "I think Aligoté has a big future," he says, citing the grape's strong presence in Burgundy's past. Lachaux notes that Aligoté often produces fresher wines than Chardonnay, and with global warming on the rise, the variety could prove advantageous.

Farming capacity is another one of the many reasons that local vignerons are excited about the variety. Tomoko Kuriyama of Chanterêves explains that Aligoté is often easier to farm than Chardonnay because of its resistance against powdery mildew. "This year, we didn't spray any sulfur on our Aligoté vines, whereas we were obliged to on our Chardonnay due to powdery mildew," she reveals.

Yield of dreams

However, farmers of Aligoté must pay close attention to the vines' vigor, which, if not farmed carefully, can produce exceedingly high yields. Echoing Lachaux, Kuriyama also cites Aligoté's naturally high acidity as advantageous in the cellar, especially as global temperatures climb. She notes that she and Guillaume Bott pick their Aligoté when the potential alcohol degree is 12.5-13 percent, or at times, even higher. "However, Chardonnay at 13 percent rapidly loses acidity," she says, citing noticeable day-by-day differences.

Down in Bouzeron, Matt Chittick, winemaker at Domaine de Villaine, finds that Aligoté's yields can be all over the spectrum. "With Aligoté, it's harder to achieve optimum ripeness levels in cooler years and difficult to get the yield right, as it can be notoriously high cropping but can also be super low cropping – there's not much middle ground," he explains.

However, this didn't deter Kuriyama and Bott from purchasing a handful of Aligoté plots over the past two years. The pair first purchased fruit from an Aligoté plot back in 2017, began farming it themselves in 2018, and eventually purchased it the following year.

"We were offered the entire vineyard [1.5 hectares of Chardonnay and 1.5 hectares of Aligoté], though we were originally really excited to purchase it because of the Aligoté," says Kuriyama. She credits this excitement to the fact that the pair can farm the Aligoté more ecologically (without spraying sulfur), but also because of Aligoté's bright future, thanks to high acidity levels, in the age of global warming.

"We already are seeing more [estate] Aligoté, in the sense that many domaines had been selling it off to négociants in the past," says Kuryiama, crediting the grape's success to pioneering vignerons like Sylvain Pataille, Nicolas Faure, Jean-Marc Roulot, and other forward-thinking growers. "I think that many more domaines will look to them and think, 'Okay, we can do something with Aligoté if we keep the yields low'. I think it's a great advancement. It's moving forward."

Simple pleasures

Two years ago, Fleurie-based Michele Smith-Chapel and her husband David ventured beyond Beaujolais and sought to purchase some Aligoté to create a pleasurable daily drinker.

"The goal was to produce a wine that is uncomplicated and that doesn't beg for your attention," says Smith-Chapel. "But, if you take a moment to reflect, you can appreciate Aligoté's nuance and complexity. The point is to find pleasure in a daily routine, like breaking crispy bread in the morning."

Michele Smith-Chapel and husband David believe Aligoté provides a simple pleasure.
© Grand Cru Selections | Michele Smith-Chapel and husband David believe Aligoté provides a simple pleasure.

This idea of pleasurable simplicity is also reflected in the pair's Aligoté label. Smith-Chapel explains that the font is inspired by the antiquated street signs found around Beaujolais. "Here, you may pass the signs daily and never notice their beauty, though if you take a moment and observe them up close, you'll see that they’re crafted by hand so that no two signs are exactly the same," she says, additionally citing that the serif font is perfectly imperfect in its spacing and italics. "[The purpose is] to find beauty in the seemingly ordinary aspects of daily life," she reiterates. Smith-Chapel's Aligoté is sourced from an organic plot in the village of Igé (Maconnais) and is pressed without sulfur, native-yeast fermented, steel-vinified, and bottled unfined/unfiltered.

Additionally, Smith-Chapel notes that growers in Burgundy have continued to believe in the charm of Aligoté, which in best-case scenarios, is now landing the grape on choice parcels. She explains that although the market dictates the price of Chardonnay to have more monetary value, it's ultimately the desire for simple pleasure that keeps her and David going back to Aligoté. "We chose to work with Aligoté because it's the wine we wanted to drink for apéro, with dinner, and amongst friends. The selling price didn't factor into our decision."

The simple tradition of it Aligoté in Burgundy is also emphasized by Guillaume d'Angerville, who reveals that although his Aligoté production doesn't make a large profit, the grape's regional significance is reason enough to keep working with it. "Aligoté is unique to Burgundy and it needs to be promoted more," he says. "Otherwise, there is the risk that it disappears, should producers decide to focus on more profitable appellations."

Going public

Which leads us to the consumer market. Although clients are no strangers to Chardonnay-based white Burgundy, Aligoté still has some footing to be found.

"Serious collectors and wine geeks certainly know of Aligoté, but the day-to-day consumer who comes in looking for a white wine from the region is likely unaware," says Lauren McPhate, director of sales at New York's Tribeca Wine Merchants. McPhate reveals that her shop doesn't sell a ton of Aligoté, though the store has long been supporters of Domaine Leroy's expression (mentioned by Lachaux above), which, according to her, "offers an approachable price point for a tremendously expensive producer".

McPhate believes that the value to be found in Aligoté is very producer specific. "Sylvain Pataille's Aligotés are world class, and reflect a moderate price point compared with Chardonnay of equal quality," she says.

"Historically, Aligoté has had low pricing, both by the domaines who produce them and the market that sells it," says Chittick. However, he finds that events like 'Les Aligoteurs' are changing the face of the variety, showcasing its potential, and ultimately shedding light on how compelling expressions from responsibly farmed sites, decently yielding vines, and single-vineyard plots can be.

"The price of Aligoté is increasing as people show that it can be just as interesting, refreshing, and mineral-driven as some Chardonnays," he says, crediting Nicolas Faure, Beno?t Ente, and other like-minded vignerons as strong pioneers who have done a lot to prove that Aligoté can demand a higher price.

So what’s the future look like for Aligoté?

"Perceptions are changing," says Chittick. "People are looking for new things from Burgundy, and young new producers are especially happy to 'find' a new variety." Chittick also notes that Aligoté is frequently the first wine that someone tastes from an estate, so having a solid entry-level cuvée is always good for making a strong first impression. 

Smith-Chapel feels confident that the tradition of Aligoté as a staple in Burgundian lifestyle, like bread, will remain. "The grape has a long history, and as long as the climatic conditions permit, the grape will have a certain future,"” she says, citing abundant local enthusiasm from the younger generation of growers.

On a consumer level, McPhate finds that there's room for Aligoté to grow, though it's happening. "While a lot of Aligoté can be forgettable, with the right clones, low yields, and thoughtful winemaking, it can be exceptional and a value proposition. Plus, it's loaded with fresh acidity, which is great as the climate continues to rise."

Above all, McPhate cites that most average consumers have long felt priced out of Burgundy, and Aligoté provides some accessible relief. "We're already seeing this [of looking to alternate varieties], especially in traditional markets like London, and it's a trend that I think will continue as people continue to work from home. There's less showing off and more exploration, which has been really fun to watch as a retailer."

In short, Chittick sums it up best: "Not sure what the impression like is abroad, but I feel like Aligoté is having its moment."

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