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Bourgogne is Evolving—and This Grape Variety Is a Big Reason Why

Bourgogne is Evolving—and This Grape Variety Is a Big Reason Why

Is Aligoté in its Renaissance era?

Aligoté grapes in Burgundy | Photo Credit: BIVB / Jessica Vuillaume

Aligoté, Bourgogne’s “other” white grape, was once cultivated alongside Chardonnay on some of the Côte d’Or’s most prestigious slopes, such as Corton-Charlemagne and Montrachet. After the phylloxera crisis, however, vignerons favored re-planting Chardonnay, as it was “à la mode” and more financially viable. 

Consequently, all the Aligoté vines were ripped out, and the grape was banished to the plains—otherwise known as potato country, areas characterized by fertile soils with inadequate drainage—or to the cooler ranges of the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune. Although some fringe heroes, such as Marsannay’s Sylvain Pataille, have long heralded the grape’s potential, high-yielding, angular Aligoté has often been viewed as Bourgogne’s “lesser than” white offering. Today, Aligoté encompasses just 6% of the region’s vineyards, trailing significantly behind Chardonnay’s 51%.

Recently, the price of a select few Aligoté wines has skyrocketed on the secondary market. This remarkably adaptable and energetic grape is being reinvented and revalued. Winemakers are suddenly championing the underdog grape, thrusting it into the spotlight.

“This once-overlooked grape variety is now captivating the palates of discerning wine enthusiasts,” says Laura Algieri, Beverage Director at Lucky Cat in Miami. “In recent years, Aligoté has emerged from its supporting role to become a standalone star, showcasing its unique charm and versatility.”

The game has indeed changed, and Aligoté is demanding our full attention.

A turning point began when Charles Lachaux of Domaine Arnoux Lachaux won the 2018 Golden Vines Rising Star Award. In combination with his major viticultural and cellar innovations, the accolade, and unanimous praise from wine critics, price speculation for his wines exploded in a frenzy. His négociant label Aligoté, Les Champs d’Argent, was selling for more than $3000 per bottle. Even today, it’s listed at over $1000 on Wine-Searcher.

Charles Lachaux of Domaine Arnoux Lachaux | Photo Credit: Bowler

This is not happening in a vacuum. Modern, small-scale winemakers like Catharina Sadde of Les Horées and Nicolas Faure’s Aligotés sell in the astonishing range of $250 – $600 per bottle. These high-ticket wines are neither Grand Cru nor Premier Cru. They are simply Aligoté, farmed and vinified with expert care.

“I think it’s always going to remain niche, but as far as the quality of the grape, I don’t think it should be looked at differently than Chardonnay,” says Yannick Benjamin, top NYC Sommelier and co-founder of Contento. “Aligoté, no doubt about it, can express terroir from vineyard to vineyard, from village to village. There’s no reason why it can’t demand the same high prices.”

Never before has there been such a radical shift in pricing seen around a wine that was long considered “only drinkable when mixed with crème de cassis in the French cocktail “un kir.”

As temperatures rise, so do prices in Bourgogne

Bourgogne is no stranger to the perils of climate change. This “cool-climate” region has been rocked by back-to-back scorcher vintages, frequent summer heat waves, and a recent devastating spring frost. Drought, sunburn, and early harvest dates have become the new normal. 

Frost-resistant, early-ripening, and high acid, Aligoté could be a solution for retaining the freshness in the regions’ whites. Additionally, the Hautes-Côtes, where Aligoté is abundant, remains cool during summer due to its higher elevation.

“It’s scary to see how fragile Chardonnay can be to work with,” says rising star winemaker Marie Baltus of Sèves. She and her partner, Foulques Bertholet, have just purchased their first 1.56acre Aligoté vineyard in Bouzeron. “As we imagine our future as producers in Burgundy, we really believe in the strength of Aligoté –it may not be the easiest path, but it’s the smartest regarding climate change.”

The face of Aligoté is evolving

Le Montrachet, where Aligoté was once co-planted with Chardonnay | Photo Credit: Ali Massie

With all the recent attention, we see an expansion of the Aligoté category as a whole. More winemakers are showcasing the grape’s extraordinary versatility. There is an increase in single-vineyard Aligoté offerings, perpetuating the idea that Aligoté has terroir. A diversity of new styles of Aligoté are being produced, including skin-macerated, oxidized, crémant, barrel-aged, and field blends.

“I think there’s going to be loads of fun with Bourgogne Aligoté experimentation and, hopefully, some Vin de France with blending it with Chardonnay,” says Paul Wasserman, co-director of Becky Wasserman & Co, in Beaune. “I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

“Winemakers in Burgundy have embraced this rediscovered gem, experimenting with different terroirs and vinification techniques to create a range of expressions that showcase the grape’s true potential,” adds Algieri.

Aligoté, it appears, is in its Renaissance era

While Aligoté may be enjoying its day in the sun, it’s time for the rest of us to drink up, stock up, and enjoy before yet another Burgundian phenomenon becomes unattainably expensive.