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Deep-Diving into Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie

An Evening with Xavier Gérard

It was a real treat to have our friend Xavier Gérard in NYC for a few days this past week. The overarching reason for Xavier’s trip was a dinner in his honor, hosted by the Commanderie des Costes du Rhône, a fraternity of over 4,000 enthusiasts with chapters worldwide dedicated to promoting and enjoying the Rhône’s vinous bounty. On the evening of November 16th, a group of two dozen knights of the Rhône gathered at the splendorous University Club in Midtown to explore a range of Xavier’s (and his father Francois’) wines going all the way back to 1988.

Guests were welcomed into the dramatic arched-ceilinged dining room with a glass of Viognier “Le Replat” (in French, roughly “the re-flat,” referring to the higher-altitude flatter lands just above the dramatic slopes of Condrieu itself) from the 2010 vintage. Now, one could be forgiven for wondering if such a wine (classified as a mere Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes) would be in tournament condition at eleven years of age, but this was full-on electrifying—still holding on to some primary aromas, and with a zesty acidity seldom found in the rich Viognier of this zone. To be sure, this wine’s shocking freshness was a harbinger of things to come…

Outside of its region of origin, Condrieu is widely misunderstood, as wine writers for years have pigeonholed the appellation’s wines as best consumed within a few years of the harvest—as if its youthfully ostentatious primary aromatics of peach and white flowers were all Viognier from these great terroirs had to offer. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, and Condrieu reveals its innate mineral potency only when the dramatic exuberance of its youthful fruit begins to diminish a bit. Xavier remarked that his personal sweet spot for drinking Condrieu is between seven and twelve years past harvest, but that from top vintages it can evolve positively for far longer—an observation borne out in glorious fashion by the library wine with which we concluded the second flight.

To be fair, many growers in recent decades have reinforced the impression of Condrieu as a wine to be drunk young by leaning into winemaking techniques that enhance its lavishness: tons of new oak, frequent lees stirring, and hyper-controlled fermentations to goose the aromatics. Following his father Francois, Xavier takes a different approach, using no more than 10% new wood and aging in low-toast 600-liter casks to minimize the contribution of oaky aromatics. His are wines that allow the innate granitic power of the appellation to express itself fully, particularly after a few years in bottle.

For our first Condrieu flight, we enjoyed Xavier’s two interpretations of the appellation side-by-side, from the as-yet-released 2019 vintage. Both the Condrieu “L’Arbuel” and the Condrieu Côte Chatillon displayed the expected aromatic fireworks of young Viognier, albeit in very restrained and measured fashion, but their stark differences even at this young age underlined another important point about Condrieu’s perception in our market: although for many casual consumers and industry folks Condrieu is treated as a monolith, these wines can illustrate their vineyard of origin with the precision of great white Burgundy or great Alsace wine. The “L’Arbuel,” from tiny plots in the Marmouzin and Corbery vineyards whose production is so low it makes more sense to blend them, was both brighter and fruitier than the Côte Chatillon, which displayed a more profound stoniness and a tighter overall impression of structure despite its acid being less foregrounded…

Which leads us to another aside: Condrieu is often characterized as a low-acid wine, which is technically true as Viognier is not a high-acid variety, but when done well it is nonetheless perfectly balanced—but it is a balance built around a unique combination of acidity and bitterness rather than acid alone. Xavier discussed the importance of a twinge of appetizing bitterness in the flavor profile of Condrieu, and his wines all bore that out beautifully.

This first Condrieu flight was paired with a sublime dish of scallop crudo from the University Club’s in-house chef, the legendary Terrance Brennan of Picholine and Artisanal fame. It is tempting to view Condrieu as an “aperitif-style” wine due to its showy aromatics—indeed many of the same old-school wine writers who demanded it be drunk young blithely characterized it as such—but it shines with the right cuisine, and it downright needs food to illustrate its full gustatory range. Buttery scallops and luscious Viognier go together hand in glove, and this was a pairing that exemplified the rarefied perfection of classical French cooking and its ability to bring out the best in its vinous counterparts.

The next stage in our dinner explored Condrieu at two different points in its life cycle. The 2011 Côte Chatillon was wide open, and as richly fruited as would be expected from its quite warm vintage of origin, but with a quinine-like touch of bitterness and a murmuring nuttiness—not the walnut-skin nuttiness of oxidation, but the clean nuttiness of fresh almonds. Reminiscent of a great Alsace Riesling from a granitic grand cru such as Schlossberg or Kaefferkopf, this gorgeous wine lent serious credence to Xavier’s remarks about seven-to-twelve years constituting an apex for Condrieu’s aging arc. The second wine of the flight, however, blew apart our preconceptions about Condrieu entirely… The 1991 Côte Chatillon, made from vines just seven years of age (but whose roots were already plunging deeply into the site’s clay-less dark migmatite soils in search of water), was brighter in its acidity than any of the young wines, shot through with a chlorophyll-like streak of pulsing green energy, and as brazen in its minerality as an aged white Burgundy. Chef Brennan’s dish of braised greens, sauteed chanterelles, poached egg, and parmesan crisp was, again, a flawless foil which enhanced the wines’ sense of freshness while echoing their creamy cores.

We could have stopped there and had enough revelatory sense data to ponder for days, but alas, Xavier produces stunning Syrah as well, and so our dinner proceeded with a flight of his three red wines from the 2017 vintage: the Saint-Joseph “Le Blanchard,” the Côte-Rôtie, and the Côte-Rôtie La Landonne. As he does with his white wines, Xavier employs as light of a touch as possible throughout the vinification and aging of his reds, and they are paragons of terroir expression and haunting balance. All three showed the power and depth of the solar 2017 growing season, with the Saint-Joseph offering irresistibly forward fruit, the Côte-Rôtie flexing its ample muscles but smiling rather than glowering while doing so, and the La Landonne—from Xavier’s scant third of a hectare in this hallowed cru—hurling spices towards the heavens while taking command of our palates with its sheer breadth and tenacity. Chef Brennan prepared the tenderest venison any of us had ever had, which allowed the wines to feel velvety where they may have felt spiky on their own.

Our cheese course pitted three clothbound cheddars against each other, and while cheese and red wine can be a clunky dance to witness if the cheese is too bloomy or strong, these fruity, precise cheddars allowed the more aged Côte-Rôtie of this flight to shine. The 2009 Côte-Rôtie, vinified by Xavier’s father Francois, was fully de-stemmed, and while it was delicious and deeply expressive of its appellation of origin, it felt more one-dimensional than Xavier’s more recent vintages. Xavier has sagely re-introduced whole clusters into his vinifications of Syrah, employing between a quarter and a third of them based on vintage character, and this practice contributes aromatic complexity while tightening up structure and enhancing the impression of linearity and drive—important characteristics to prioritize, particularly as the climate continues to warm. The 1988 Côte-Rôtie was a transmission from a different era, made back when Francois didn’t even own a de-stemmer, and it was heartwarming in its gusty rusticity and firmly mineral spine. You simply don’t see wines like that from the Northern Rhône anymore, and it is a real privilege to be able to peer back into this bygone world while the wines are still so alive and drinkable.

As if this mind-bending progression of wines weren’t enough, our dessert course featured the rarest kind of Condrieu: late-harvest sweet Condrieu, which can only be made when weather conditions allow the grapes to hang an extra six to eight weeks while maintaining enough juice to press and vinify. Xavier’s 2018 “Vendange 31 Octobre”—from Viognier in Côte Chatillon picked on Halloween—spent eight months in a single new 600-liter cask, and it carries 143 grams per liter of residual sugar and 12% alcohol (it was harvested at 25% potential alcohol). One might expect such a wine to be over the top in its aromatics or viscosity, but this miraculous syrup dances on the palate like cotton candy, with viscerally peachy flavors and musky floral overtones tied together by a pristine, glistening acidity that feels more Riesling-like than anything.

Xavier Gérard has every right to possess an extraordinary ego, but despite the brilliance of his wines, he remains a humble—though consummately articulate and thoughtful—ambassador for his family’s land and his great terroirs. It is only through growers like Xavier that we can reimagine the possibilities inherent in such a misunderstood and underappreciated appellation as Condrieu, and we look forward to seeing where his career takes him. It’s safe to say that nobody in attendance at this dinner will ever look at Viognier the same way, and down the road, when Xavier is in the pantheon of great Northern Rhône producers and his wines are only available via allocation, we’ll all be able to sit back and say, “I knew him back when…”