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October 17, 2019

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18th century Aligote hits comeback trail in style

People like wines to benefit from a solid backbone. When stirring on courage in youngsters many parents in the West will counsel, “have some backbone.” In the world of wines, backbone is provided by acidity in whites and tannin in reds. The former is the focus of today’s column.

In the English language acid or acidity are seldom terms of endearment, but in the world of wine they are treasured and indispensable. Acidity in wine is a beneficial characteristic that enhances the fresh and crisp qualities of the beverage and thereby makes the wine more food friendly.

Common wine descriptors like fresh, tart, zingy, crisp, sour and zesty are all related to the acidity of a wine. Some acids are naturally present in grapes while others are a spin-off of the process of fermentation. Natural acids like tartaric, malic and citric acids impart the freshest and purest flavors while acids resulting from fermentation, including lactic, succinic and acetic acids, tend to give milder and more complex flavor sensations. All are essential qualities in a good white wine.

White wines have greater acidity than red wines and when you hear wine people referring to balance in white wines, they are primarily talking about the fruitiness versus the acidity of a wine. Beginners commonly prefer more fruit and lower acidity while experienced drinkers usually crave more acidity.

Many pedestrian white wines have an abundance of fruit but little acidity and are derogatorily referred to as being flabby or fat. These wines are also poor companions to food. The positive role of acidity in food pairing should hardly surprise any gourmet as practically every great food culture in the world knows the essential role of acidity in making ingredients more fresh, distinctive and digestible. Fine examples are hairy crab with vinegar, fresh lemon sprinkled on grilled fish and lemon grass served with Thai dishes.

Popular acidic whites include Spanish Albarinos, French and Kiwi Sauvingnon Blancs and dry Rieslings.

Well-made unoaked Chardonnays usually also feature good acidity. There’s one delightfully acidic white wine that many readers may not know.

In Burgundy, the Aligote grape is a humbler, less highly regarded grape than the noble Chardonnay. But in the right hands it can make exceedingly fresh and clean wines. This early-ripening and hearty grape has a predilection toward high acidity and the challenge for most growers and winemakers is to gain enough fruitiness to offset the acidity.

DNA fingerprinting indicates that the grape is a cross between Pinot Noir and the rather obscure Gouais Blanc variety. The earliest mention of Aligote wines in Burgundy dates back to 1780 when it was referred to as Plant de Trios, literally “plant of three” as branches usually support three bunches of grapes. Over the ensuing century the grape was often inter-planted and field-blended with Chardonnay grapes. Yes, in 19th century vintages of Montrachet and other great whites of Burgundy there was often a small amount of Aligote.

Starting with the devastating Phylloxera pest outbreak in the latter part of the 19th century and continuing throughout most of the 20th century, plantings of Aligote vines declined in Burgundy. The vines were replaced by a more popular and financially lucrative Chardonnay variety. But a small cadre of acidic-loving loyalists remained and in our new millennium the variety is experiencing a small but steady revival among dedicated wine aficionados.

Today a growing number of top winemakers in Burgundy are extolling the grape’s benefits and in particular express the belief that Aligote is just as capable as Chardonnay in elegantly showcasing the beguiling complexity of Burgundian terrior.

Aligote will never make wines as weighty and age-worthy as Chardonnay, but it does express terrior in its own unique way.

Many of the best Aligote wines come from in and around the Cote Chalonnaise village of Bouzeron.

Recognizing the ability of this small sub-appellation to make superior Aligote wines, authorities established the Bouzeron Aligote AOC in 1937. Good Bouzeron Aligote wines typically feature a pale gold color, expressive citrus, apple and floral aromas and flavors with a tart finish.

Aligote grapes also play a role in the blends of some Cremant de Bourgogne sparkling wines adding freshness and Aligote is the preferred wine to make the legendary Kir cocktail.

I’m a fan of good Cremant de Bourgogne sparklers and enjoy a nice Kir cocktail, but I prefer Aligote in its immaculately fresh single variety white wine manifestation. These are unpretentious, pure and expressive wines that pucker up your palate with their high acidity and embellish so many seafood, pasta and white meat dishes.

Enterprising wine lovers can find some excellent examples of Aligote wines in Shanghai. My first choice would be the Aligote wines of Thierry Mortet as they offer exceptional varietal and terrior typicity. Other recommended producers of Aligote who have wines in our fair city are Jean Charles Fagot, Roux Pere et Fils, Chanson, Pierre Morey, JP Fichet and Faiveley.

When purchasing Aligote whites, it’s important to select wines from a recent vintage. Unlike the grand age-worthy Chardonnay whites of the Cote d’Or, Aligote wines should be enjoyed young when they still retain all their freshness and exuberance.

I suggest choosing wines from the exceptional 2014 Aligote vintage or from the succeeding vintages that have all been very good to excellent. Finally, remember to serve the wines well-chilled or about 8 degrees Celsius.

Varieties: The most notable grape of Bouzeron AC is Aligote, unlike most the rest of Burgundy where Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay predominate.

Key term: Flabby in wine talk refers to overtly fruity wines that lack structure.


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