Growing up, my brother’s and my favorite movie was The Karate Kid. It was one of two movies that we had on VHS and we could recite it (and Romancing the Stone) line for line. I still get choked up at the end of the karate tournament when, with a quiet nod from Mr. Miyagi, Daniel Larusso, barely able to stand, locks eyes with head Cobra Kai Johnny and crane kicks him straight in the chin—promptly winning the trophy, the respect of his bullies, and the love of Ali with an “i.” I’m always a sucker for an underdog, whether a wimpy new kid from New Jersey or an underrated wine, and I can’t think of one more deserving of a little aeration time than Burgundy’s perennial wallflower, Aligoté.
Wine on, wine off: Aligoté is just the sort underdog grape that deserves to be a champ. Daniel Larusso would approve.
Living in the Burgundian shadows of the more prestigious and profitable Chardonnay, Aligoté is commonly relegated to the lesser vineyard sites at the tops and bottoms of the slopes. For every acre of Aligoté planted in Burgundy, there are about eight acres of Chardonnay—further exhibiting just how much of a backseat it takes in this region that fetches top dollar for its headlining white. Tolerant to the cold, early to ripen, and intended to be drunk young, Aligoté makes for a pretty easygoing grape. On the nose, it boasts of green apple, lemon-thyme, and stony minerality. On the palate, you get fresh pineapple, zippity-do-da acidity, and just a hint of vanilla bean creme brulée from the judicious use of oak (of which only the French are true masters). Very go-with-the-flow, Aligoté pairs well with everything from soft-shelled crabs to escargots and many shell-less foods in between. The bracing acidity cuts right through fats and proteins, so why not splurge on the lobster tail with drawn butter and save on the wine by opting for Burgundy’s redheaded stepchild? She might not be as impressive at the table as a Meursault, but if this isn’t the time for a cheap dinner date, then I don’t know when is.
THREE WAYS TO DRINK THE UNDERDOG:
Domaine de Régusse Aligoté 2007. Tastings of Charlottesville. $9.95
Domaine Chevrot Cuvée Des Quatre Terroirs Bourgogne Aligoté 2006. Siips Wine and Champagne Bar. $18.99
Domaine Rollin Bourgogne Aligoté 2006. Market Street Wineshop. $18.99
Seldom in a starring role, Aligoté is more often found as a component of Crémant de Bourgogne (Burgundy’s sparkling wine) or in the ubiquitous French cocktail, kir, which is one part cassis and deux parts Aligoté. However, leading a quiet Aligoté revolution in his village of Bouzeron in southern Burgundy is Aubert de Villaine. Aligoté’s Prince Charming, de Villaine used to run Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (one of Burgundy’s most venerated estates) and has since placed the glass slipper onto this urchin of a grape. By restricting its yield, he produces an exquisitely balanced, hazelnutty, lemon-drop of a wine that would be loath to mingle with the likes of crème de cassis. Eastern Europe also grows Aligoté with good success, and Bulgaria, in fact, has double the acreage of the grape’s ancestral home.
It’s not easy playing second fiddle in a place as serious about its wines as Burgundy, but Aligoté needs no pity-party. These lean times call for a sure-bet that really packs a punch and delivers on the dollar. Aligoté may be the underdog, but with the guidance of talented winemakers and the support of informed wine-drinkers, it might just sweep the leg and put that Chardonnay in a body bag once and for all.