I love angular wines. Wines of spine. And so it's no surprise that I also love the fresh, structured, anti-flavor aspect of aligoté, in fact, I'd rather drink it than most 1er cru and grand cru burgundies, I mean chardonnay.
As I went to Burgundy to discover why I liked the grape and how it came to fall into disrespect, I started to feel like a freak, is something wrong with me? There's barely a mention of aligoté in Jasper Morris' fine new book, Inside Burgundy. Coates makes reference to it being a 'grape of no distinction.' He refers to its common use, splashed with cassis, as a kir. Bascially the grape is used to play a kind of winey foosball.
But it wasn't always like that. At one time aligoté thrived, even in high up places. It flourished-- not in shabby rent areas, like across the 74 on the flat-- but in soils where the clay mixed with limestone, and in Bouzeron, on the best slopes in the middle. And also in Corton and Pernand! In fact today there is talk of many stray old aligoté vines snaking on the hill, still. (and from Laurent Ponsot himself, he's renting some of them and will make a wine called Corton, not aligoté. Take that, Corton-Chuck lovers. Will you be able to tell?)
Its disappearance started with a familiar story. Phylloxera. Chardonnay was the winner in that race. But it still existed. There were problems, economic ones. Being a late ripener, one often ran into harvest rain and rot. Easier to work with the early to ripen chard. However, it had one last gasp with a short-lived renaissance after WW2 when the grape was actually replanted mostly because the locals needed something to knock back. They couldn't afford other fancy white burgundy.
Today, there's not a lot of aligoté left in the ground. But it's there. From Côte Chalonnaise to Côte d'Or to Chablis (hello deMoor, gosh I love your aligoté ), much of it stands as an old and gnarly, with a mean age of about 60 (guessing here). I like the character delivered from old-pre-clonal vines. I feel I'm getting more truth. In fact from Pierre de Benoist who makes his uncle's wine (A&P de Villaine) to Anne, to Laurent (Ponsot) to Mikulski, they all agree, the stuff just doesn't even get decent until the vine is at least fifteen years old. So, there I am looking for the wine on the shelves, Aligoté is complex and inexpensive. Sounds like I'm the winner here.
This is a vine in Monts Luisants, the 1er Cru vineyard in Morey St. Denis
Ponsot calls it an 'elephant' foot shaped leaf.
Grabbing her polar fleece on the hot June day, Anne Morey, Pierre's pretty dark haired daughter asked me, "Are you really here to taste aligoté?"
I thought her smile was another way of saying, 'Are you some kind of idiot? Everyone else wants to taste the grand cru.'
I assured her I was on for the aligoté. We walked down the long staircase to the very cold Meursault cellar. She took her spot behind a barrel and started to pull corks. There were 11 vintages in front of me, my first real aligoté vertical. (prices in US for recent vintages, $17-$25)
'09 was fresh, cheddar cheese.
'08 profoundly aromatic, honey.
'07 wet wool and reduced, but juicy and breezy and licorice.
'06 aromatic, ripe, round tangerine
'05 some rs, mint, fennel, very meursault like but better
'04 close to the 07, kind of malic (popcorn) least fav
'00 cheesy, yogurt, fruit, apple, second least fav
'99 delicious, apple, fuzzy, odd, complex, radish, watermelon.
'98 cheese nose but juicy with a dose of aspirin. yum.
'97 ah, guess what oxidation watchers? oxidized!
'03, her grandfather's last vintage, 15% alcohol. picked at end of september. peach, caramel, powerful, interesting, quite an oddity.
Then she asked at the end of a spectacular tasting , "Why are you interested?"
I didn't know whether to tell her the long or the short version. I went with short. "I love it. And I want to give it some attention.
She smiled, she wasn't shittin' me as she said, "I love aligoté too. It's as if the grape eats minerals and stones."
I wasn't the only one who loved this underdog. Wherever I went there was a very personal connection to this thick-skinned omnivore of stones and minerals, as if it were their special child, the special needs child who just needed a little love and appreciation .
But still, as I wandered off to see Laurent to hear his side of the story, I wondered if she was thinking with that cellar filed with vintages of grand and 1er cru Morey wines, if she was thinking, wow, you are a nut.