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Not surprisingly, the best growers and producers in Burgundy seem to make the best aligotés.

Aligoté wines: Once dissed, now trendy

06/07/2018 - 05:50

New York

WE believe in the virtues of an open mind. Yet we would be less than honest if we did not concede our own struggles with practising what we preach.

Certain styles of wine have proved difficult for me to appreciate with meals. Big, fruity reds, for example, that are high in alcohol and give the impression of sweetness, tend to overpower most foods. They are better for people who enjoy wine as a cocktail than for those seeking an agreeable partner at the table.

I don't apologise for that. I will acknowledge that I ought to revisit certain wines that have not spoken to me in the past. Rather than write off, say, amarone and zinfandel entirely, I may find that some examples are not quite so domineering. Depending on the producer's intent, some of these wines may be made in a style more appealing to me.

Still, many people - once they have decided to forsake a certain type of wine - refuse to go back. I never argue the specifics of taste. What you enjoy and what you abhor are entirely up to you.

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But we believe relentless curiosity is awarded. You will find more styles to embrace, and more flavours that convey wine's vast wonders and complexity.

For the last month, we have been drinking aligoté, a white wine from Burgundy that is a flashing neon sign for the issue of reflexive dismissal. For decades, the conventional wisdom has been to banish aligoté from consideration as a distinctive, or at least interesting, wine. Minor, inconsequential, wan, harshly acidic are among the ways it is usually described - fit only as the base wine for a kir, an aperitif made by blending it with crème de cassis.

Is this really so? A few years ago, I ordered a bottle of aligoté at a sushi bar and discovered, to my surprise, that it went beautifully with the meal. I experimented further and became somewhat obsessed with the wine.

It turns out that aligoté is just like any other sort of wine. You can find good examples, great examples, bad examples, even horrendous examples. This is true of every genre of wine, from the most exalted, historic category, like Bordeaux, to highly popular ones like New Zealand sauvignon blanc and rosé, to those on the polarising vanguard, like natural wines.

If your experience is limited to a bad example, that may skew your entire outlook. Good examples may open your mind.

Visit any supermarket in France and you will find cheap aligoté, just as you will find relatively inexpensive grand cru Burgundy. These are wines that are badly made from grapes grown with more regard for quantity than quality. These are the conventional wines that gave us the conventional wisdom.

Are many other white grapes better than aligoté? That's a loaded question. It's a lingering 19th-century habit to think of grapes and wines in hierarchical terms, to separate the so-called "noble" grapes from those that, by contrast, must be commoners.

It's far more productive to think both in terms of potential and of occasion. The potential of grapes like chardonnay, chenin blanc and riesling has been deeply explored, and we can conclude that these are superb grapes that can make some of the most sublime wines in the world, as well as great everyday bottles. And still so much more remains to be learned about them.

What about grapes like aligoté? Do we know how good it can be if they were planted in the best sites rather than in what remained after the best sites are used for chardonnay? If they were farmed and vinified with the same care given to chardonnay, might they cost a little more than those cheap bottles in the supermarket racks?

It turns out that some exploration is underway. Sylvain Pataille in Marsannay has been making single-vineyard aligotés, from excellent sites, that are glorious. Domaine Ponsot for years has tended aligoté vines in a plot above the grand cru Clos de la Roche Vineyard in Morey-St-Denis. The wine, Clos des Monts Luisants, sells for more than US$125 a bottle.

But what if most aligoté simply made pleasing everyday whites? Is that a bad thing? Sometimes, that is exactly the wine you want, and on those occasions, none are better.

Not surprisingly, the best growers and producers in Burgundy seem to make the best aligotés. They respect its history in Burgundy, and even if they may have varying opinions of its potential, they make exceptional wines that reflect the esteem they have for it.

We sampled three different vintages: Paul Pernot et ses Fils Bourgogne Aligoté 2016, Michel Lafarge Bourgogne Aligoté Raisins Dorés 2015, and A & P de Villaine Bouzeron 2014. The 2016 Pernot was penetrating and incisive, with a deep, rich aroma and flavours of herbs and tart citrus. The 2015 Lafarge was rounder and saline, though without the energy of the Pernot, while the 2014 De Villaine Bouzeron was rich, full and lip-smacking, with both energy and salinity.

All three of the wines had a depth of texture that seemed to unfold in the mouth, always a characteristic of good aligoté.

Two of the bottles carried the appellation Bourgogne Aligoté, a reminder that the Burgundians themselves have deemed aligoté unworthy of carrying a more specific designation of place. The two exceptions to that are the expensive Ponsot, which is called a Morey-St-Denis premier cru, and aligotés from Bouzeron, a village in the Côte Chalonnaise.

Pierre de Benoist, who runs the De Villaine estate, told me when I visited him last year: "It's the only place where the vignerons didn't hear the siren call of chardonnay."

Amid the social media chatter regarding aligoté, I discovered a new criticism of it: This unfashionable grape is now being disparaged as trendy. As a result, the criticism goes, it is no longer inexpensive, which apparently was its sole virtue.

So has aligoté now joined Sicily, the Jura, grüner veltliner and other regions and wines that can be dismissed for becoming more popular?

One more reason to keep an open mind and decide for yourself. NYTIMES