Burgundy’s other premium white grape: the Aligoté Doré

by Tom Fiorina on June 5, 2012

A. & P. de Villiane Manager Pierre de Benoist

The story of the Domaine A. & P. de Villaine goes back to the 1970s when Albert de Villaine and his American wife, Pamela, purchased a run-down wine estate in Bouzeron. De Villaine wasn’t the first to recognize the potential in the Bouzeron terroir, which is located just south of Beaune, between the famous Burgundy appellations of Chassagne-Montrachet, Santenay, Rully, and Mercurey, in the Côte Chalonnaise. Monks from the abbey of Cluny first planted vines here in the 12th century.

But it’s really not surprising that de Villaine, co-director of one of the world’s most famous vineyards, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, wasn’t put off by seven centuries of neglect. By all accounts an unassuming man, who–in spite of being honored in 2010 as Decanter Magazine’s “Man of the Year,” still thinks of himself as an everyday, normal vigneron.

The same philosophy that has made DRC such a legendary vineyard—complex and expressive terroir, with parcels selected for the best sun exposure and drainage, excellent vine stock and organic and biodynamic vine cultivation, are also to be found here, a place unfrequented by the tour buses and wine groupies that make the village of Vosne-Romanée a sort of wine Mecca. And even though the estate’s wines don’t command the same atmospheric prices as its legendary cousin, the whites and reds of Domaine A. & P. de Villiane are well recognized for their quality.

What drew me to Bouzeron was a chance meeting with Pierre de Benoist, Albert de Villiane’s nephew, who took over the estate 11 years ago. De Benoist was one of dozens of winemakers who I met while doing my internship last fall with Didier Barral in Faugères in southern France. Lenthéric, the small Languedoc village where Domaine Léon Barral is located, is also somewhat of a pilgrimage site. Instead of tour buses, however, the vehicles of choice are “Quatre-Quatres,” 4X4 trucks driven by winemakers interested in learning more about Barral’s unusual, biodynamic-polycultural vineyard management that includes fruit trees, wheat cultivation, and cattle and pig raising.

The young de Benoist and Barral share the same philosophy about getting the most from their vines by working with nature, adapting their soil and vine cultivation techniques, rather than trying, with tractors, chemicals and industrial methods, to supplicate the natural order of things. De Benoist also spoke to me about his dry, white Aligoté wine. I knew the Aligoté as a highly acidic wine used as a blend in Burgundy’s sparkling wine, the Crémant de Bourgogne, or as something to mix with cassis to make a cocktail kir. It’s a high-yield grape, with apple and lemon aromas, viewed as being far inferior to the Chardonnay from this wine region.

Œnologue Nicolas Guichard looks on as Pierre de Benoist prepares to taste one of his Bouzeron whites.

The Aligoté in Bouzeron is different, however. De Benoist told me that, through massal selection (a technique where cuttings from the best vines are propagated) they have planted over 12 hectares of an Aligoté clone named the Aligoté Doré. This clone gives a smaller yield, and consequently grapes with more expressive, concentrated aromatic qualities, than the high-yield Aligoté Vert clone used virtually everywhere else in Burgundy. The INAO, the French organization that is responsible for delimiting the geographic areas entitled to produce premium products, including France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) wine regions, upgraded the appellation to AOC Bouzeron in 1997.

When I finally made my way to see de Benoist, I was treated to a fascinating vertical tasting of Bouzeron whites. Two days prior to my visit, Pierre Casamayor, who I wrote about recently in an article about a champagne dégustation and who writes for the respected La Revue du Vin de France, had been here to taste the estate’s wines all the way back to 1984. Twenty or so open bottles were ready for myself and two other people in attendance for the tasting, an œnologue from Saint Emilion, Nicolas Guichard, and Christopher Santini, who works in Beaune for de Benoist’s American wine importer, Kermit Lynch.

Full disclosure: tasting notes for some of the below wines are compilations of my own impressions, as well as comments made by the above-mentioned individuals.

2010
This first Bouzeron had an intensely fresh, lemony nose, a round, mouth-filling structure, and a long finish. There was a good balance between the crisp acidity and the wine’s wonderful, silky feeling on the tongue, with a mixture of mineral and citrus flavors. Like all of the Bouzeron whites that we tasted, it had a brilliant clarity, and a light-green color with golden hues.

All of the estate’s white wines are fermented and aged on their lees (bits of the skins and yeast left over after fermentation) for one year. The fermentation and aging takes place in large, wooden foudres, and the wines are never stirred, de Benoist said, unless there is some indication of reduction. The average age of the Aligoté Doré vines, he told us, was around 50 years of age. Average yield is between 50 and 55hl/ha, while the AOC Bouzeron permits a yield of 65hl/ha.

2009
Wine number two was a Burgundy blanc Chardonnay, Les Clous. Whereas the Aligoté Doré vines are planted in clay, limestone and marl soil, the Chardonnay vines are planted on a mixture of clay and limestone. The nose on this wine was less intense than the precedent, with an even rounder and more richly textured mouth. Although tasty, this wine lacked the firm minerality of the Bouzeron, and was, in the opinion of all of the tasters, less appealing.

2010
This second 2010 was a Rully blanc Chardonnay, Les Saint-Jacques. Its nose was fresh and lemony (is it just a coincidence, or are white wines that taste of limes more often than not planted in limestone soil?), the mouth was round and full, but this time with a touch of salinity, which de Benoist claims is the influence of the ancient sea that once covered the Burgundy region.

2007
We were now getting into more-mature Bouzeron territory, and the nose of this wine was more complex, with a mixture of licorice, lemon and floral aromas. The mouth was again round and succulent, with a hint of salinity and white flowers. It was a thoroughly delicious wine, and one that was beginning to illustrate the Aligoté Doré’s aging potential.

1998
In a blind tasting this wine’s nose might easily be mistaken for a Riesling. It had that variety’s characteristic mix of petrol, mineral, and citrus, along with attractive bees wax aromas. The mouth was round and saline.

1996
The nose on this 16-year-old wine was still fresh and lemony, but this time with the addition of an almost-champagne-like, fresh brioche quality to it.

1995
There was definitely a rich, toasted-bread quality to the nose of this wine, with a round, saltwater taffy-quality to its mouth. It was long and persistent, and I began to ponder the possibility of creating an “I love Aligoté Doré” bumper sticker. This wine, along with the 2007 millésime, rose above the rest of the other wines in terms of quality and complexity.

1990
Then disaster struck. Well, not really, but the 1990 was definitely corked. Which surprised everyone, particularly de Benoist who told us that it had been fine, two days beforehand, for the Revue du Vin de France tasting. On closer examination, the reason became evident. The bottle’s cork, which had been blackened by mold during its 22 years in a cellar, had inadvertently been placed in the bottle with the decayed side inwards. Even though the bottle had been left upright, preventing direct contact with the cork, the musty aromas had been infused into the wine.

1992
This was another noteworthy wine, with, even after 20 years, a stunning, lemony, fragrant nose, accompanied with a creamy, salty, fresh brioche, hazelnut mouth.

1984

This is the likely outcome of a 28-year-old white wine that was uncorked two days earlier. The band of oxidized wine is evident at the top of the bottle. We tried, unsuccessfully, to taste what was underneath.

It was inevitable, especially with a white wine— that one of these wines had become oxidized after having been left in a recorked bottle. I’ll need to wait for Pierre Casamayor’s RVF article to find out how this 28-year-old Bouzeron had tasted immediately after having been opened.

We then tasted several of the estate’s Pinot Noir wines, each made from progressively older vines, a 2010 Bourgogne rouge La Fortune (from 20-to-25-year-old vines) that was resplendent in its fragrant cherry aromas, but slightly thin in structure, a 2010 Bourgogne rouge Digoine (from 35-to-45-year-old vines) that had an even more intense cherry nose and a more robust body, and a Mercury rouge Les Montots from 2010 (from 40-to-50-year-old vines) that was exquisitely vibrant with cherries, and a bracing minerality accented with floral and spice nuances.

An absolutely gorgeous 2005 La Fortune rounded out the reds. This wine had a complex nose of well-ripened fruit (more plum-like than cherry), with spiciness and a faint smokiness that demonstrated the value of aging red wines from a good millésime.

A 2011 Bouzeron with the CO2 that would be removed before bottling was rich with exotic fruit, peach and asparagus flavors that would someday evolve into the complex floral, fresh brioche and hazelnut nuances that make it worthwhile to stock your cellar with wine made from that “other Burgundy white grape.”

With Bouzeron, you actually get two wines: a young version with distinct crispness, appealing minerality and salinity, and, with some age, a rounder, older version that accentuates those same youthful qualities with more richer and complex floral and hazelnut nuances.

Now, I need to find out where I can get a bumper sticker made.

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