The Aligoté grape and Felix Kir

Some would say that describing the aligoté grape as chardonnay’s poor relation, is an insult to chardonnay!

Felix Kir - Mayor of Dijon 1945 to 1968

Felix Kir - Mayor of Dijon 1945 to 1968

In the 8c white wine grapes were reputedly introduced to the Hill of Corton, just to the north of Beaune. It was upon the insistence of Luitgard, the fourth wife of the Emperor Charlemagne, after she tired of seeing his white beard repeatedly stained by red wine. These vineyards are now planted with chardonnay, and a large holding is in the hands of biodynamic estate Domaine Bonneau du Martray, a favourite producer of Queen Elizabeth II

Aligoté and Chardonnay were both indigenous grape varieties of Burgundy. However Chardonnay was the easier grape to grow, and deemed more appealing to popular taste. In the same way that the Pinot Noir grape, (which had the support of the Dukes of Burgundy) replaced Gamay, to become the predominant red grape variety in the region, so the Aligoté vines were moved out onto low lying areas where the grape was never going to give of its best.  When poor location is combined with ‘traditional’ farming techniques, (no ploughing, artificial fertilisers, pesticides etc), the results can be poor indeed.

Felix Kir was a Catholic priest with character, and a prominent member of the French Resistance. After the war in 1945 he was made the Mayor of Dijon, a position he held until his death in 1968. As Mayor, he would serve his guests an aperitif, mixing a small quantity of Creme de Cassis de Dijon (blackcurrant liquor), with the local white wine aligoté. The drink went down so well, it became world famous, and is now named after him – Kir. The acidity of the Aligoté grape is countered by the sweetness of the liquor, which makes it well suited to serving with ‘amuse bouches’ or ‘canapes’. 

Of late we have been tasting a number of Aligotés from biodynamic producers, where the vines are more than 60 years old and still remain in prime sites. The results have been a revelation. In fact there is nothing second rate about this grape at all, and in the hands of a good winemaker, it is capable of producing a wine that can easily hold its own with  chardonnay. It is also considerably better value. It goes well with food, and particularly with cheese.

Jean Fournier, who is producing some beautiful wines in Marsannay, makes a balanced, fruit filled biodynamic aligoté from 80 year old vines on the western side of the 974 heading towards Dijon from the south.  It is one of our favourite wines, and can be purchased from the Wine Club together with the other wines from this estate.

The Different Faces of the Burgundy Vineyards

Slumbering in the hazy winter sunshine of a mid January Sunday afternoon, is the wine village of Vôsne Romanée.  This mythical place, rich in history, blessed with a unique terroir, is the birthplace of some of the world’s most sought after, and correspondingly expensive wines.

The winter months are an interesting time to walk the vines.  In the summer months there is green foliage, whereas in the winter, all is laid bare.

The winter months are an interesting time to walk the vines.  In the summer months there is green foliage, whereas in the winter, all is laid bare.

Winemaking in Vôsne was founded by the monks of St Vivant in the 12C. The monks lived on the Hill of Vergy, 10km from Vôsne, and the route they followed is now marked out and known as the ‘Chemin des Moines’ ‘The Path of the Monks’. There is a plaque on the property where they took their harvests, paying homage to this illustrious history.

The vines of Romanée-Conti

The vines of Romanée-Conti

 

Many of the vineyards in Vôsne are farmed biodynamically.  This immaculately tended vineyard of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has furrows between the vine rows. They were ploughed in December.  The soil is piled up against the base of the vine to provide additional protection to the root system for the cold winter months. Ploughing aerates the soil and encourages the decomposition of inert matter, which in turn provides nutrients to feed the vine. At the same time, lateral roots are severed by the plough, encouraging the main roots to go deeper into the strata, contributing depth, originality and complexity to the wine.

A chemically farmed vineyard in Vsne Romanée

A chemically farmed vineyard in Vsne Romanée

At the other end of the spectrum, are the acres of vineyards still farmed in what is euphemistically described as a ‘traditional’ manner, but 'chemically' would be a more apposite description.  The use of herbicides has killed off vegetal growth between the rows.  Tractors have compacted the ground, and instead of ploughing, artificial fertilisers are spread on the surface, which discourages the roots from penetrating deeper, and further damages the micro organisms in the soils where the roots are feeding. The immune system of the vines is weakened, so protection from pests and fungi is obtained by the use of pesticides and fungicides, adding more chemicals to the soils.  The wines produced from such a vineyard tend to be lacking in fruit and vitality, with no individuality or connection to the terroir.

Vineyards like this can sadly still be seen all along the Côte. It just seems more striking when the plot happens to be alongside the ‘Chemin des Moines’!