Gamay's second fiddle, while for the white grapes, Chardonnay is the golden boy to Aligoté's red-headed step-child. Acclaim for Burgundian wines made from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay is widespread and the prices for the best of these wines often reach stratospheric levels. The best wines made from Gamay or Aligoté, by contrast, are little commented on and generally will cost you less than $20. The class distinction between the two groups is clear and almost universally recognized by critics and connoisseurs alike.
Of the two outcasts, Aligoté has it much worse than Gamay, though. Wines made from the Gamay grape are much more widely available to consumers than wines made from Aligoté, and you are likely to find a bottle of Gamay everywhere from your local grocery store to your favorite specialty wine shop. Furthermore, Gamay has been given its own sub-section within Burgundy, the Beaujolais region, where it is allowed to be king. Aligoté is given only a single village, Bouzeron (in the Côte Chalonnaise), to be a star in and wines made anywhere else within the Burgundy region can carry the general Bourgogne Aligoté label only. Since wines made from the Aligoté grape are not entitled to any AOC classification above the general Bourgogne Aligoté, those who do grow it tend to grow it on poorer sites, such as the valley floors or the tops of the hills, where the grapes are not able to ripen properly. Since the AOC laws allow for so much more specificity in labeling wines made from Chardonnay grapes, and since specificity in Burgundy generally means higher prices, it makes much more fiscal sense for the growers to give Chardonnay the prime spots and relegate Aligoté to the fringes. As a result, the wines made from those Aligoté grapes can be good, but are rarely world-class, so the growers and officials feel justified in their assessment of Aligoté as a second class grape and nobody clamors to elevate its status within the region. The Oxford Companion to Wine offers the opinion that if it were planted on the choicest sites in Burgundy, "Aligoté could produce fine dry whites with more nerve than most Chardonnays," but concludes that this isn't practical not only for the reason outlined above, but also because these days Chardonnay has more commercial clout than any other white grape by virtue of its name alone.
It's kind of interesting that Aligoté is primarily known for its second-class citizen status in Burgundy because its plantings within Burgundy account for only a tiny fraction of its plantings worldwide. There are about 1700 hectares of Aligoté in Burgundy (compared to nearly 13,000 for Chardonnay), but worldwide there are over 45,000 hectares of land planted to the grape, making it the 22nd most planted grape in the world. The overwhelming majority of this land is in eastern Europe, though, in places like Romania (which has over 6000 ha of land planted to Aligoté), Ukraine, Russia and Moldova. Since we almost never see these wines on our shelves here in the States, we still tend to view Aligoté in the context of its role in Burgundy, where it is more prized as an ingredient in a Kir cocktail (together with creme de cassis) than as a white wine.
I used a couple of family metaphors above when describing how the four Burgundian grapes relate to one another, and there's a very good reason for that. It turns out that all four grapes are related to one another in a very interesting way. In 1999, a UC Davis research team published a paper that showed that Pinot and another grape called Gouais Blanc were the parents of an astonishing number of French grapes (Bowers, J., Boursiquot, J., This, P., Chu, K., Johansson, H., & Meredith, C. (1999). Historical Genetics: The Parentage of Chardonnay, Gamay, and Other Wine Grapes of Northeastern France. Science, 285(5433), 1562). Among those offspring were Chardonnay, Gamay Noir and Aligoté, among a slew of others. Meaning that those three grapes are essentially "siblings" with Pinot as the father (this study did the research to prove the mother-father relationship between the grapes). Eagle eyed readers may note that I've only indicated Pinot as the father, rather than Pinot Noir, Blanc or Gris. The reason is that the techniques used for these pedigree studies is unable to differentiate between clonal variants of a given cultivar. When samples of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are analyzed using this technique, they all come back as identical since the lighter berried grapes are merely skin color mutations of Pinot Noir. These studies, then, cannot say conclusively that Pinot Noir was the father of these grapes, but since it has had the longest history within the region, there's every reason to think that it is.
A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.