Saturday, January 21, 2012

Uncommon Denominators - Aligoté and Niagra

Time for another addition to my Wine Century Club list of varietals. Aligoté is a French varietal that, while well established, isn't seen all that much nowadays. What's interesting to me about this wine is that it's an Ontario wine that's being opened. Despite the fact that, the last time I checked, Ontario was still part of the same country as BC, we don't see many Ontario wines out west. As of 2011, there were 147 wineries in Ontario but there are only 21 wines from the province currently listed in the provincial BC liquor branch - and half of those listings are icewines.

British Columbians, on the whole, may not be in love with all things Ontario - especially not the Maple Leafs - but I'd personally be in favour of seeing more of their wines out here.

1049. 2007 Château des Charmes Aligoté (VQA Niagra-on-the-Lake - Ontario)

If you think that there's a paucity of Ontario wines in the BC liquor system, you might also consider the fact that there are only two Aligoté varietal wines available. Château des Charmes' version is no longer one of them. Accordingly, we weren't quite sure what to make of this wine but it exceeded any expectations that we might have had.

Aligoté is actually one of the two traditional white varietals grown in Burgundy. You might have heard of that other white grape, Chardonnay, and, as a result, Aligoté - like a poor cousin or understudy - tends to find itself hidden in the background. The varietal is commonly used in making the sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne and the varietal still wine is the customary wine that is mixed with Cassis liquer in French bistros to make Kir - certainly a summertime favourite of mine.

Known for its higher acidity and slightly herbal hint on the palate, Aligoté is clearly a secondary grape in Burgundy. Its plantings constitute only about 1/8th of the traditional white varietals planted in the region. It isn't seen all that regularly out of France either - although it apparently has a presence in Eastern Europe. And at least a bit of one in Ontario as well.

The back label on our bottle says that Château des Charmes' Aligoté is the only one produced in Canada. The winery, however, has been growing the grape since 1978. Back when the Canadian wine industry was just starting to grow out of its Baby Duck days, Château des Charmes was one of the first to establish itself on the estate winery model. It also started experimenting with classic Vinifera varietals that might be able to weather the Canadian winters. Château des Charmes felt that it found a winner with the Aligoté and they've stuck with it ever since. Winemaker, Paul Bosc, finds that "Aligoté can be a chameleon by exuberantly expressing its terroir."

Bosc played an integral part in those early experiments and he has an interesting past as well. His family has winemaking roots in France and Algeria and, prior to his arrival in Canada, he was the general manager of one of the largest and most successful wineries in Algeria. Bosc, like most Frenchmen, evacuated Algeria after a seven-year civil war resulted in France giving the country its independence in 1962. Following his arrival in Canada, he had a varied career in what comprised the Canadian wine industry of the day - until he help found Château des Charmes.

The winery is now one of the largest producers in Ontario, making around 70,000 cases of wine a year. It is particularly well known for its white wines which are perennial winners in various competitions. They were also on the cutting edge when they became one of the first wineries in Ontario to design and build a winery with visitors clearly in mind. Back in 1994, when the new winery was built, there was no Ontario Wine Road or wine tourism in place. They've played a major role in helping establish the industry that is in full swing today.

As for the Aligoté, I mentioned that we were pleasantly surprised. The wine expressed qualities similar to unoaked Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. Canadian magazine, Wine Access, has gone as far to say that this Aligoté is "one of the most overlooked whites in Niagra." Both Boo and I thought it matched particularly well with our salmon.

All in all, I've got to be pretty pleased with this bottle. I get another wine for the Wine Century Club (I think I'm now around 115 or so); we have a rare opportunity to try an Ontario wine - and we got to thoroughly enjoy our wine for the evening.

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