SOMETIMES THE OLDEST CLICHES STILL WORK. Variety is the spice of life. It’s the antidote to mundaneness; when reality emerges victorious over expectation, a hard-to-beat revelatory feeling etches into your memory for countless retellings at the dinner table. These feelings occur often in the highly presumptuous world of wine. Be it a brilliant bottle from a bad vintage, a complex wine from an unremarkable region, or a characterful wine from a lesser-known grape. The latter is where aligoté comes in: a white grape, but a dark horse.
Considered Burgundy’s ‘other white’, aligoté is a crossing of pinot noir and gouais blanc, and appears to have originated around the region in the 17th century. It’s second only to chardonnay in terms of white plantings in Burgundy, admittedly by a huge margin.
In times gone by, the two were commonly inter-planted, with aligoté’s role being to ensure sufficient acidity. This strategy wasn’t only employed in the marginal terroirs, but also in the likes of Corton-Charlemagne and Montrachet.
These days, however, they’ve been separated out and aligoté has its own growing following for its singular expression. That said, it has often been relegated to inferior sites, hindering its potential and resulting in many thin, insipid examples. But with controlled yields from old vines planted into higher, rocky, clay/limestone sites, the grape can express terroir beautifully.
Aligoté ripens early, produces moderate yields, and can tolerate cooler conditions and the associated disease pressures. It produces dry white wines with vibrant acidity and characteristics centering around apple, lemon, peach, white florals, and saline minerality. Its high acidity puts it in sparkling territory, too, used as one of chardonnay and pinot noir’s supplements in Crémant de Bourgogne.
With similar origins to chardonnay (also a crossing of pinot noir and gouais blanc), aligoté can be treated in a similar way, with oak fermentation and maturation beneficial for bolder iterations. That’s not to say aligoté can rival the great chardonnays of the region, but it can certainly produce wines that span the spectrum of fruit-driven and refreshing to complex and age-worthy.
To substantiate this, we need only look to the calibre of Burgundian talent getting behind this variety. Aubert de Villaine is the co-owner and co-director of Burgundy’s most famous producer, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, affectionately known as DRC. Upon beginning the DRC role in the early 1970s, Villaine took up residence and started his own label – Domaine de Villaine – in the lesser-known village of Bouzeron in the Côte Chalonnaise.
Aligoté drew no attention in Bouzeron until 1979 when it earned the appellation, Bourgogne Aligoté de Bouzeron. In 1997, aided by years of advocacy from Villaine, the appellation was upgraded to Bouzeron AOC. Today, it’s the only appellation dedicated to aligoté. Uniquely, Bouzeron possesses a rare clone called aligoté doré, which yields low, resulting in fruit that is more expressive, complex and aromatically concentrated. This is somewhat special compared with the higher-yielding aligoté vert that’s used everywhere else in Burgundy and the rest of the world.
Leading Burgundian producer Domaine Ponsot is also a champion of the grape, making the only premier cru aligoté in all of Burgundy from a parcel of Monts Luisants in Morey-Saint-Denis. Ponsot’s Clos des Monts Luisants Premier Cru arguably captures this high-altitude rocky terroir better than chardonnay can, and if aligoté’s age-worthiness was ever in question, this wine provides a definitive answer. These heavy hitting producers aren’t alone; other Burgundian royalty, such as Coche Dury, Jean-Marc Roulot, Leroy, Lafarge and Ramonet, are also proponents of the grape.
There are small plantings of aligoté in France outside of Burgundy. However, the surprise packet is the broadly dispersed plantings globally, most notably in Romania, Russia, Switzerland, Moldova, Ukraine and Bulgaria. In fact, Bulgaria has double the plantings of aligoté than the grape’s homeland of Burgundy.
There are precious few plantings in Australia. Hickinbotham of Dromana (hickinbotham.biz) boasts the oldest and largest Australian aligoté vineyard (just three rows), planted in the 1960s. Mornington Peninsula label Garagiste (garagiste.com.au) sources fruit from this vineyard to release tiny quantities of quality aligoté. In 2015, Terrason Wines (terrasonwines.com) took cuttings from Hickinbotham and planted a vineyard into the ancient volcanic soils of Whitfield in the King Valley. Terrason makes its own quality example, but also sells fruit to producers like Bande Apart (bandeapart.com.au) and Mallaluka (mallaluka.com.au). In the west, Blind Corner (blindcorner.com.au) has two rows in Margaret River. The winery picks its chardonnay riper for flavour, then blends in early picked aligoté for citrus zing and an acid injection.
To use another cliche, aligoté is a dark horse. Will it continue to trot forward or will it gallop? Only time will tell.
2019 Bande Apart King Valley Aligoté, King Valley, A$38
Nashi pear, Granny Smith apple, grapefruit and white blossom descend into lemon thyme, lemon rind and a touch of waxy skinsy savouriness. There’s a nice slippery texture to the palate – meyer lemon, grapefruit pith and lime are framed by tart appley acidity and attractively bitter phenolics.
2021 Garagiste Tuerong Aligoté, Mornington Peninsula, A$38
Spiced pear, ginger, peach and flinty mineral aromas first up, followed by lemon rind, grilled chestnut and sea spray. The palate has lovely intensity and definition; bursting with preserved lemon, pear, peach and crushed green apple. All pulled long by a spritely citrus drenched acidity.
2020 Guilhem & J-Hugues Goisot Bourgogne Aligoté, Burgundy, France, A$46
Opens with rockmelon, pear and subtle kiwi skin before making way for brine, yellow peach and some slightly vegetal notes. A ripe palate shows yellow apple, yellow peach and meyer lemon with a salty, savoury backbone, before pithy grip and ripe acidity carry to a pear-infused close.
2020 Fabien Coche Bourgogne Aligoté, Burgundy, France, A$50
There are deep and heady aromas to start – bees wax, honey, ripe peach, grilled apricot, stewed pear and apple crumble. The palate is medium-bodied, with apricot, peach, honey and ripe lemon all wrapped up in appley phenolics hemming the richness and joining with citrusy acidity to a long close.