I am writing this on an airplane on my way to Burgundy, the crossroads of France known for its great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. But did you know that Burgundy has a lighter side? This is a little known variety that folklore says was proclaimed into obscurity by a King because he just happened to like Chardonnay better. This is something that we still see today, only it is the movies or wine writers that are taking the center stage and making certain grape varieties more popular than others. The variety I am referring to is Aligoté, the “other” white wine of Burgundy.
The birthplace of Aligoté is Burgundy, with the earliest records referring to one of its synonyms, Plant de Trois beginning in 1780. Trois is the French word for three, and it references the three clusters that the plant bears on each of its fruiting canes. Long considered a lesser variety in Burgundy, a document in 1807 actually proposed pulling the variety out rather than planting it. Its parentage has been confirmed by DNA fingerprinting as a natural progeny of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. Its siblings include the most popular Chardonnay — the “real” white Burgundy, — Gamay Noir, and Melon, and other lesser-known regional varieties. It is interesting that the like parent that these varieties share is Gouais Blanc, which has long been referred to as one of the bastard varieties and was banned for many years in areas of Europe. I guess no one told the grape breeders.
Some say that Aligoté has a reputation as being the poor and inferior sister of Chardonnay. But that is really not the case. Aligoté was inter-planted with Chardonnay in Burgundy’s vineyards. It had a purpose in its original plan. Today, in a region where there are 100 appellations d’origine contrôlée (AOC), it is the major grape in only two AOCs, aptly named Bourgogne Aligoté and Aligoté Bouzeron. France has about 4,800 acres (~1,950 hectares) almost entirely in Burgundy planted in Aligoté, specifically in the Côte d’Or and to the south. This is actually about a third of the white grapes of Burgundy, so an impressive showing. It is grown only on the highest slopes or in the valley, with the prime slopes being reserved for the much more profitable Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. There are plantings in the Chablis region also, in addition to the northern Rhône River valley. The AOC rules of Burgundy permit up to 15% Aligoté blended with Chardonnay, and a lot of the variety winds up in Crémant (a French sparkling wine from regions outside of the Champagne region and with less carbonation than Champagne). In general, production of Aligoté has decreased in favor of Chardonnay.
Outside of Burgundy, it is widely planted in Eastern Europe. The Republic of Moldova reported 39,000 acres (~15,780 hectares) in 2009. Ukraine, Romania, and other Black Sea nations enjoy an Aligoté wine that is much lower in acidity due to the warmer climate. In North America, you can find the variety in California, Oregon, and Washington in the United States, as well as in Canada. There is only one reported planting in Australia. In reality, this is a grape that should be considered in warmer regions.
The wines of Aligoté are neutral in flavor and high in acidity. Jancis Robinson refers to them as having a sometimes “eye-watering” tartness. They also find their way into the “Crémant de Bourgogne” or the sparkling wine of Burgundy. Being an everyday wine, they are considered more affordable than Chardonnay. They are also part of a local cocktail called Kir, which is Aligoté mixed with a small amount of crème de cassis, or blackcurrant liqueur, which is a popular distillation product of Burgundy.
The higher acidity and lower pH can be inhibitory to the malolactic bacteria and some winemakers opt to age sur lie, which is French for “on the lees.” Stirring the lees every few weeks releases breakdown products from the yeast that help with softening the mouthfeel and also providing some nutrients to the malolactic bacteria. This is a popular technique even if acidity is not an issue and can be done with most any wine as long as the lees are healthy; that is no aroma of rotten eggs or other sulfides. Another option in winemaking is to combine barrel fermentation with sur lie aging. Using a mix of new and neutral oak barrels and blending for nuances of oak, and trying to preserve the steely minerality on the fruit are tricks that a few producers in the United States use. This wine doesn’t need a lot of oak that its sister is known for. You want to aim for a crisp and clean wine.
In California, some producers use it to “beef up” the acidity in Chardonnay, where it can be blended up to 25%. There is not much area planted to Aligoté in California, however I do run across it in some internal winery blend reports that have been shared with me as part of my work with UC-Davis. Until 2012, we had a mere 14 vines in the vineyard at the university. I too blended it in with other whites for its acidic qualities. We lost those vines to virus and they had to be removed. However you decide to use the grape, this is a time-sensitive wine, meaning they are best consumed in the first two years.
Viticulturally, this variety is early to bud out in the spring, which makes it susceptible to spring frosts. The clusters number three per shoot and are prone to downey mildew and Botrytis rot. It is more resistant to the over-winter cold temperatures that can kill Chardonnay. It ripens early as well, therefore it is a well-suited variety
for the colder sites that it occupies — almost guaranteeing that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can have the sites they are best suited for. It is not a fussy variety, growing on both chalky soils as well as sandy soils.
I like wines with good acid structure because they pair well with food. In the case of Aligoté you can’t go wrong with crab cakes accompanied with an aioli, for that matter any seafood with a lemon-based sauce will bring out the best in the wine. If you have one that is lightly oaked, try it with smoked fish. Charolais and Mâconnais are also suggested pairing with cheese. An interesting reference to be well received with rich, oily, or fatty foods reminds me of the cuisine of Burgundy and some of the best roast duck I have ever tasted.
I understand the emphasis on Chardonnay in Burgundy, and how local wines fit a region, but sometimes we close our minds on the concept of what does better in a particular region to what the wine consuming public wants to drink in the United States. The contrast here is that at one point, Aligoté was inter-planted with Chardonnay, then relegated to the highest and lowest slopes of Burgundy. Locally, this is still a good idea as the wines are still grown in the micro-sites that they perform best and the wines of Aligoté are still blended up to 15%. But I think the New World winemakers need to address how to make wines that more reflect what we would taste in Burgundy if they are to boast they are making a “Burgundian white” style wine. It is a viable grape for California and should get more attention.
Selecting a not so common grape was a bit of a quandary for me. I am always an advocate for the underdog. With respect to Aligoté, I understand there’s just not a lot of it around. But in the quest to try something new, you should try this one if you can find it. Even if you can’t find the grapes, look for some fine examples in your local bottle shop. It just may take you back to Burgundy; pick up a bottle of cassis while you are at it. Kir anyone?
Aligoté Recipe (5 gallons/19 L)
- 100 pounds Aligoté fruit or 6 gallons (23 L) juice (if using juice, begin at step 7)
- Distilled water
- 10% potassium metabisulfite (KMBS)solution. Weigh 10 grams of KMBS, dissolve into about 75 milliliters (mL) of distilled water. When completely dissolved, make up to 100 mL total with distilled water.
- 5 grams Premier Cuvée yeast (also known as EC1118, Prise de Mousse)
- 5 grams Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP)
- 5 grams Fermaid K (or equivalent yeast nutrient)
Other equipment or needs
- 5-gallon (19-L) carboy
- 6-gallon (23-L) plastic bucket
- Racking hoses
- Inert gas (nitrogen, argon or carbon dioxide)
- Refrigerator (~45 °F/7 °C) to cold settle the juice.
- Ability to maintain a fermentation temperature of 55 °F (13°C)
- Thermometer capable of measuring between 40–110 °F (4–43 °C) in one degree increments
- Pipettes with the ability to add in increments of 1 mL
- Clinitest® tablets to measure residual sugar at the completion of fermentation
- Tartaric acid (Addition rate is based on acid testing results)
Step by step
1. Crush the grapes and move the must directly to the press and press lightly to avoid extended contact with the skins and seeds.
2. Transfer the juice to a 6-gallon (23-L) bucket. During the transfer, add 2.5 mL per gallon of 10% KMBS solution (This addition is the equivalent of about 35 ppm SO2)
3. Take a sample to test for Brix, acidity, and pH.
4. Move the juice to a refrigerator and let it settle at least overnight. Layer the headspace with inert gas and keep covered.
5. When sufficiently settled, rack the juice off of the solids into the 5-gallon (19-L) carboy.
6. Mix up the Fermaid K in 50 mL of previously boiled water (to sterilize it so you can add it to the juice)
7. Prepare yeast. Heat about 50 mL distilled water to 108 °F (42°C). Measure the temperature. Pitch
the yeast when the suspension is 104 °F (40°C). Sprinkle the yeast on the surface and gently mix so that no clumps exist. Let it sit for 15 minutes undisturbed. Measure the temperature of the yeast suspension and the temperature of the juice. You do not want to add the yeast to your cool juice if the difference in temperature of the yeast and the must exceeds 15 °F (8 °C). To avoid temperature shock, acclimate your yeast by taking about 10 mL of the juice and adding it to the yeast suspension. Wait 15 minutes and measure the temperature again. Do this until you are within the specified temperature range. Do not let the yeast sit in the original water suspension for longer than 20 minutes. When the yeast is ready, add it to the fermenter.
8. After the yeast is pitched, move the carboy to an area where the ambient temperature can be maintained at 55°F (13 °C).
9. You should see signs of fermentation within 2–3 days. This will appear as foaming on the surface and bubbling in the airlock.
10. Dissolve the DAP in as little distilled water required to completely go into solution (usually ~20 mL). Add to the fermenting juice once the sugar has decreased about 1⁄3 from the original Brix.
11. Normally you would monitor the progress of the fermentation by measuring Brix. One of the biggest problems with making white wine at home is maintaining a clean fermentation. Entering the carboy to measure the sugar is a prime way to infect the fermentation with undesirable microbes. So at this point, the presence of noticeable fermentation is good enough. If your airlock becomes dirty by foaming over, remove, clean, and replace it as quickly and cleanly as possible. Sanitize anything that will come in contact with the juice.
12. After about two weeks it is time to start measuring the sugar. Sanitize your thief; remove just enough liquid to submerge your hydrometer. Record your results. If the Brix is greater than 7 wait another week before measuring. If the Brix is less than 7 begin measuring every other day. Continue to measure the Brix every other day until you have two readings in a row that are negative and about the same.
13. Taste the wine. If there is no perception of sweetness, consider it dry and add 3 mL of 10% KMBS per gallon (4 L).
14. Smell the wine. If there is any sulfide (rotten egg) odor, rack the wine off the lees. If the wine smells good, let the lees settle for 2 weeks and stir them up. Repeat this every 2 weeks for eight weeks.
15. Check the SO2 after the second stir and adjust to 30-35 ppm free SO2.
16. After eight weeks, let the lees settle. At this point, the wine is going to be clear or slightly cloudy. If it’s cloudy, you have two options: Do nothing (it’s just aesthetics) or clarify with bentonite. Even if it is clear, you may still want to clarify since the wine will have high protein content and may turn cloudy later on.
17. While aging, test for SO2 and keep maintained at 30-35 ppm. Once the wine is cleared, it is time to move it to the bottle. This would be about 6 months after the onset of fermentation. Keep in mind this wine has had the MLF inhibited through SO2 additions. If all has gone well to this point, given the quantity made, it can probably be bottled without filtration. However, if you would like to filter for added protection, do so now.
18. Bottle your wine. Maintain sanitary conditions while bottling.