Thursday, September 13, 2007

Exploring Burgundy: Bourgogne Aligoté

Bourgogne Aligoté is best known in two respects.

First, it’s “the other white grape” of Burgundy. It’s not unfair to think of Burgundy as Chardonnay country (along with Pinot Noir, of course). Arguably the finest Chardonnay based whites in the world emanate from the famed enclaves of the Côte de Beaune: Meursault Perrieres, Le Montrachet, Corton…. The list goes on and on. Less obviously, there’s also the occasional row or plot of Pinot Blanc, which can be anonymously blended into some of Burgundy’s regional whites, particularly in the Côte de Nuits. But if it’s Aligoté, the label is required to tell you so. The AOC authorities don’t want it to be confused with Burgundy’s pride and joy. This reasoning is not unjustified, as Aligoté is certainly a vine of less noble heritage and potential than the Chardonnay.

Second, Aligoté is most frequently consumed as the base for kir. Take a glass of crisp, lean, dry, neutrally flavored white, add a teaspoon or so of cassis (or framboise, pêche, etc.) and, voilà, you’ve got one of France’s most popular aperitifs. Aligoté, naturally a high acid variety, is also a vine which happily gives high yields. This combination is all too often a recipe for thin, tart, austere wine. What better way to make it drinkable than by adding some fruity, sweet deliciousness? Because Aligoté is not a terribly profitable proposition in any producer’s portfolio, its vines are most often relegated to vineyard sites on the fringe: the high and low slopes or spots with less than perfect exposure. However, combine a good site, an agreeable growing season and the skills of a conscientious farmer and producer and Aligoté has the potential to give wines of moderate complexity, with more acidity than Chardonnay, and with the ability to stand alone.

As an AOC, Bourgogne Aligoté is one of the easier to understand of Burgundy’s many and diverse appellations. Just take the overall region and add the name of the vine, c’est tout! There’s a kink though, just as with basic Bourgogne Rouges and Blancs. Without knowledge of the wine’s producer there is no way to know the specifics of its place of origin. The potential exists for Bourgogne Aligoté to be blended from fruit sourced from the Mâconnais in the south all the way through and to the Yonne Department in the north. There’s nothing inherently wrong or inferior about regional blends, most typically produced under the auspices of the négociant houses. However, I do believe that a more clearly defined – and frequently more characterful – sense of place emerges from the sub-regional or site specific cuvées, often the produce of Burgundy’s smaller growers. Combine this question of origin with the issues of farming and yields described above and you’ve got the conundrum of Burgundy in a nutshell. I’ve said it before. In Burgundy, even more so than elsewhere, know your producer.

Bourgogne Aligoté, Domaine Michèle & Patrice Rion 2005
When Patrice Rion originally purchased a little plot of Aligoté, located in the commune of Chambolle-Musigny, it was with every intention of grubbing up the vines and replanting the field to Pinot Noir. Given that it was mid-season and the vines were already under fruit, Patrice and his wife Michèle decided to ride out the year. It turns out that their very old Aligoté vines were not only healthy but also gave forth naturally low yields of high quality fruit. The resulting wine turned out to be surprisingly rich – medium bodied by White Burgundy standards but far more concentrated than the “typical” Aligoté. Several years on, the Rion’s are still happily growing and producing Bourgogne Aligoté in Chambolle-Musigny.

When first twisted open, poured, swirled and sniffed, the 2005 Aligoté gave an immediate impression of oak inflected richness. On the palate, that richness was followed by hints of lime zest, juniper berry, sappy minerality and very nervy acidity. Paired with food – I enjoyed a plate of scallops, chanterelles with parsnips, and potato bacon hash that night – the oak receded to the background and a creamy, lemon custard nuance emerged. Two days later, the second half of the bottle was still going strong. That lemon custard note had moved up front, along with suggestions of pear, vanilla and mace. Its texture was firm, compact and even, finishing with a blade of acidity. This is a hidden gem with the potential for some serious enjoyment over the next couple of years.

$20 on release. 12% alcohol. Imported by Petit Pois/Sussex Wine Merchants, Moorestown, NJ.

For a more complete accounting of Domaine Michèle & Patrice Rion, including their full range of reds produced in 2005-2006, check out Bill Nanson’s posting in the summer edition of Burgundy Report.


Marcus said...


Saw the last comment you left me. No problem -- sorry for my delay in going back to your site. Lots of good stuff here since I last visited. (I was thinking of Aligoté for my WBW 37 -- Domaine Ghislaine & J-H Goisot perhaps -- but I'm glad to be reading your write-up instead... that pairing sounds spot-on and delicious.)

I will have to create a link to you on my blogroll so I stay up on your posts -- they're always really informative and intriguing.


David McDuff said...

Hello Marcus,
I have no idea if M&P Rion's Aligoté is available in Canada but it's definitely worth a search. Thanks for stopping in and for the linkback.

Brooklynguy said...

hey david - who knew Rion even made an aligote? i love the stuff, sure i love a kir, but i love aligote on its own my "Aha moment" with aligote came last november in beaune during the hospices de beaune festival, eating a dozen beautiful snails with parsley garlic butter outside on a damp and drizzly afternoon, the blade of acidity you write of really enlivened me. the pairing was wonderful, and i always look for decent values in aligote now. rion's - if i ever see it i will grab some.

David McDuff said...

salut bg,
The snails sound like a damn good pairing -- a tasty way to brighten up a rainy day. Did you go to Burgundy specifically for the hospices festival or did you just happen to be there? Worth the trip?

Brooklynguy said...

Hey David - delicious pairing, yup. We went on our "babymoon," what we dubbed our last trip together before the baby was born. BrooklynLady was 7 months pregnant at the time. Incredible trip. When you have time, check out the link on my site for Burgundy and Paris trip 2006 - it has everything we tasted, and photos.

TWG said...

Good wine with pork with a mustard/lemon sauce. Shame I only had the one bottle and haven't seen in the store since '08.

David McDuff said...

Sounds like a great pairing, Tom. As for the availability of the wine, to the best of my knowledge, Petit Pois severed their import relationship with Patrice Rion a couple of years back. I'm not sure who, if anyone, now brings the wines onto the US market; I've definitely not seen them in our neck of the woods since around the time you mentioned.

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