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