Aligote, Burgundy's forgotten third grape, makes its comeback

Decades-old vines of aligote kept by Jean-Marc Roulot near Meursault, France. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Decades-old vines of aligote kept by Jean-Marc Roulot near Meursault, France. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Jean-Marc Roulot knows he could make more money growing chardonnay, but cherishes the aligote his grandfather planted. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Jean-Marc Roulot knows he could make more money growing chardonnay, but cherishes the aligote his grandfather planted. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Sylvain Pataille, a winemaker best known for his exceptional pinot noirs, has dedicated some of his best plots to aligote. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Sylvain Pataille, a winemaker best known for his exceptional pinot noirs, has dedicated some of his best plots to aligote. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Pierre de Benoist, who runs the Domaine A. & P. de Villaine estate, in Bouzeron, France, June 17, 2017. Bouzeron is the only appellation where aligote wines may use the name of the place rather than the grape.
Pierre de Benoist, who runs the Domaine A. & P. de Villaine estate, in Bouzeron, France, June 17, 2017. Bouzeron is the only appellation where aligote wines may use the name of the place rather than the grape.

MARSANNAY, FRANCE (NYTIMES) - In a cramped cellar under a courtyard in this small town on the northern edge of Burgundy, Sylvain Pataille drew a sample of a 2016 white wine from an old barrel and filled our glasses.

The wine was young and a bit cloudy, but its energy and breadth were already evident, with flavours of citrus, herbs and, above all, a penetrating, stony minerality. It was delicious.

"I adore the precise terroir expression of aligote," Pataille said.

Though he is best known for making exceptional Marsannay reds, Pataille has begun to explore the potential of aligote, the almost forgotten third grape of Burgundy.

The great reds and whites of Burgundy, made of pinot noir and chardonnay, are among the most coveted and expensive wines in the world. But aligote?

Few grapes have been as scorned in the last 50 years. Aligote is often described as thin, acidic and insipid, capable of nothing better than serving as the base for kir, in which white wine is flavoured with creme de cassis.

For the last two years, I have had so many delicious aligotes that I traveled to Burgundy in an effort to understand why the wines were not more appreciated.

Since 2013, Pataille has been bottling separate cuvees of aligote, planted in some of his best plots, to demonstrate how well it can transmit the character of a place.

"Aligote expresses terroir almost more than chardonnay," he said.

Many of Burgundy's most revered names, including cherished estates like Leroy and Coche-Dury, Roulot and Ramonet, Lafarge and d'Angerville, de Villaine and Ponsot, persist in growing aligote.

Why? Because, when the grapes are farmed conscientiously and the wines are made with precision, they can be delicious and distinctive, full of the energy and minerality that are the hallmarks of aligote.

It is wonderful with food. It's great with shellfish and other seafood, and Pataille said it goes particularly well with chicken in cream sauces. I love it with pasta sauces, like pesto or white clam sauce, that would ordinarily point to an Italian white.

"It's a mouthwatering wine," said Frederic Lafarge, whose family, best known for its superb Volnays, has made aligote for generations. He called aligote "a local wine, very particular to Burgundy."

The grape has been grown in Burgundy for centuries. Back in the 19th century, before the phylloxera aphid destroyed European grapevines, aligote was often intermingled with chardonnay in the best vineyards. When growers replanted, they mostly replaced aligote with chardonnay, though aligote was still found in the grand cru Corton-Charlemagne vineyard up until the 1970s.

The cultural connotation of aligote may have particular meaning today in a region where newfound fame and wealth may in the long run overwhelm a culture built on the image of the community of vignerons, the small farmers who tend the vines, make the wines and know the land inside and out.

Jean-Marc Roulot, best known for his Meursaults, has about two acres of aligote planted on the plain, which he maintains even though he could probably make more money if he grew chardonnay there. But the aligote vines were planted decades ago by his grandfather.

"There is no question of doing something else," Roulot said. "They are in all the family stories."

He grows the grapes organically and does the same work in the vineyard as he does with his best Meursaults. The treatment diverges in the cellar, however, where he ferments and ages aligote in steel tanks, instead of in oak, which preserve freshness rather than encouraging complexity.

"It's simple, but it has to speak of the estate," Roulot said. "You don't want it to be a pretentious wine, all puffed up. It was a wine for the family and the worker. Maybe I'm a prisoner of old habits, but a simple wine is a simple wine, and there's no shame in that."

Roulot's aligotes are textured, precise and alive. The 2014, an exceptional vintage for aligoté, was fresh, linear and tangy, while the '15, a vintage in which aligote can seem a little unfocused, was nonetheless lively, chalky and refreshing.

Surprisingly, his aligotes can age beautifully. He pulled out a 2007, which at 10 years of age was rich, vibrant and deep, with salty, savoury flavors.

"To me, it's less recognisable as aligote," Roulot said.

Aligote's potential may often be overlooked, even by those who make it. Burgundy worships the notion that good wine is an expression of the place and the culture that produced it. This notion of terroir is communicated on the label of every bottle of Burgundy made of pinot noir or chardonnay.

For a village wine, you won't find the name of the grape, just the place where the grapes were grown - Gevrey-Chambertin or Chassagne-Montrachet, for example. For a premier cru, one step up, a vineyard name might be added. For a grand cru, the pinnacle of the terroir hierarchy, the name of the vineyard alone suffices: La Tâche, say, or Musigny.

But when the appellation system in Burgundy was set up in 1936, aligote was considered unable to express the characteristics of a place. Wines made of aligote are generically labeled Bourgogne Aligote. Partly as a result, aligote has been confined to lesser terroirs, with the best land going to more lucrative chardonnay or pinot noir.

"The best terroirs for aligote are the best terroirs, period, hillsides and limestone," Pataille said.

There are two exceptions to the generic appellation rule. One is a small plot of aligote on the slope above the grand cru Clos de la Roche vineyard in Morey-St.-Denis. Domaine Ponsot has nursed this plot for more than a century, and it alone among aligotes in Burgundy has the right to be called a premier cru.

The wine, Ponsot's Clos des Monts Luisants, sells for about US$125 (S$170.89) a bottle, far more than almost any other aligote. The 2014 had the energy and linearity typical of an aligote, yet with unexpected resonance and depth. I would love to see how it unfolds with 10 more years of aging.

The other exception is aligote grown in Bouzeron, a village outside the heart of Burgundy in the Cote Chalonnaise. There, in 1971, Aubert de Villaine, the co-director of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, and his wife, Pamela, established their family estate, Domaine A&P de Villaine. Since 1979, Bouzeron has been the only appellation where aligote wines may use the name of the place rather than the grape.

"It's the only place where the vignerons didn't hear the siren call of chardonnay," said Pierre de Benoist, Aubert de Villaine's nephew, who runs the estate. Only in Bouzeron, de Benoist said, does aligote continue to occupy the best plots on the slopes.

Maintaining the best strains of aligoté is just as important, de Benoist said. Much of the aligote planted in Burgundy is the vigorous aligote vert, which produces quantity rather than quality. Only the aligote dore, de Benoist and others insist, can produce good wine. In an effort to preserve this preferred strain, de Benoist has created a conservancy to maintain it.

The de Villaine Bouzeron is produced with meticulous care. The grapes are grown organically, and each plot is vinified separately in large barrels before being blended into a single Bouzeron wine.

These wines are particularly saline, with great texture and depth. The 2015 de Villaine had lovely concentration and saltiness, with lingering flavors of lime, herbs and minerals.

Because aligote has little of the glamour of chardonnay, aligote vineyards are far less expensive to buy, providing an entry point for young winemakers without land or means. When Julien Altaber started his label, Sextant, in 2007, he could only afford to buy grapes - not grow his own - to make wine. In 2010, he found a plot of 70-year-old aligote near Puligny that he could afford.

"Nobody else wanted it," Altaber said. "Nobody else cared. It's heritage!"

He works with minimal intervention, and has experimented with his aligotes, including a sparkling one and a gorgeous golden-colored, ginger-and-herb-flavoured cuvee in which the fermented wine was left in contact with the grape skins, allowing it to develop colour and texture like a red.

Most producers, unlike Altaber, keep their methods simple and their ambitions low. But not Pataille in Marsannay. Along with his straightforward Bourgogne Aligote, he makes four other aligotes from distinct parcels, which he names on his labels.

Champ Forey is fresh and herbal; Clos du Roy is more saline, delineated and complex; Auvonnes au Pepe is tangy, herbal and citrus; and, best of all, Charme aux Pretres is penetrating, deep, linear and mineral.

"It's the Charlemagne of aligote," Pataille said.

Even with his various cuvees, Pataille only makes small amounts of the wines.

"Nobody in France understands aligote," he said. "Nobody cares."

That may be true for everybody but the winemakers, who care deeply. I asked de Benoist of Domaine de Villaine a question I'd been wondering about: How did he feel making wine in Bouzeron, which some might consider a sideshow compared with exalted Romanee-Conti?

"It's rare to be able to produce the three great varieties of Burgundy," he said. "I am very lucky." -- strong

Dozens of good Burgundy producers make aligote, including cult favourites like Domaine Leroy and Coche-Dury, which can run from US$80 to US$150. Here are 10 excellent, more reasonably priced aligotes from among the best producers who make it. Other names to seek out include Hubert Lignier, Paul Pillot, Arnaud Ente, Francois Mikulski, Comte Armand and Claire Naudin.

- Alice et Olivier de Moor (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York), US$30. Brisk aligote from the Chablis area.

- A&P de Villaine (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, California), US$30. Textured and deep wines from Bouzeron.

- Domaine Arlaud (Skurnik Wines, New York), US$20. Lively and saline from the Cote de Nuits.

- Antoine Jobard (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant), US$30. Aligotes with laserlike focus.

- Michel Lafarge (Becky Wasserman/Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York), US$25. Tart, tangy and energetic.

- Pierre Morey (Becky Wasserman/Martin Scott Wines), US$20. Fresh, linear aligotes suitable for aging.

- Sylvain Pataille (Becky Wasserman/Selection Pas Mal), US$25-US$50. Energetic, mineral and terroir-specific.

- Henri Prudhon (Rosenthal Wine Merchant, New York), US$20. Taut and precise.

- Domaine Roulot (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant), US$35. Lively, focused and delicious.

- Sextant-Julien Altaber (Percy Selections, San Francisco), US$25. Natural aligotes in several guises.