The fact that Alexandre’s first accountancy placement was at a winery would alter his destiny. He says,
He began a degree in winemaking and viticulture, in France known as the BTS, but it soon frustrated him. He says,
At the same time, he worked in a conventional winery to gain some basic experience.
Deciding he needed to broaden his knowledge about organic viticulture, he did some research, deciding to pursue a farm animal management course. This time, he’d found something he was passionate about:
He met fellow vigneron, Philippe Chigard of La Table Rouge, who is renowned for his knowledge about horses. He would become a mentor and close friend, and Alexandre’s horse grazes together with Philippe’s herd of Bretons, Comtois and Percherons.
When 2017 came around, Alexandre decided it was time to have a go at making his own wine. While looking for vineyards of his own, he made some wine from purchased organic grapes; Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Bit by bit he found plots of vineyards; 0.6 hectares in 2018 grew to 3.15 hectares in 2020.
The majority of his own vineyards (80%) are planted to 50+-year-old Chenin Blanc; half in Vouvray and half in Vernou-sur-Brenne. He’s also a big fan of Gamay, saying,
The Gamay vines were planted in 1967, and represent a massal selection (meaning when the vines were grafted they came from several different mother plants, as opposed to just one clone), which he stresses is vital for Gamay, as there are some hyper-productive clones that produce wines which are too acidic. Given that he works as naturally as possible, he doesn’t chaptalize (the practice of adding sugar to the fermenting wine to raise the alcohol), so the initial balance in the fruit needs to be spot on.
Aside from working with his horse, which he does just a few times a year to avoid opening the soil too much, he leaves the vineyards grassed through. He sprays (sulphur and copper) via a backpack which he wears, in order to avoid any soil compaction (and like we mentioned, this way he doesn’t need to learn how to drive a tractor). He also leaves the vines to grow, avoiding hedging them. He feels this helps them to find a natural balance, remarking that the difference between their first year (when he began converting from conventional agriculture) and now is drastic: at first, they grew continuously, but now they seem to be in rhythm; slowing their growth.
As he only has four vintages under his belt, Alexandre is still very much figuring out the future of his cuvées. As it stands, he’s making single vineyard still Chenin Blancs, as well as pétillant naturels. He harvests the vineyards at the same time for the still and sparkling wines, but the fruit from the older vines goes into the still wines, and any fruit that looks slightly less ripe (and thus more acidic) is also chosen for the sparkling. The picking date is the hardest part:
This is a recurring problem throughout France, particularly due to the extreme droughts which are becoming commonplace in summer. This means the vines occasionally shut down to protect their energy reserves, meaning the ripening process goes ‘on pause.’ In 2020, it was so dry that although the grapes looked beautiful, there was very little juice inside them, meaning yields were at record lows for some growers.
Alexandre’s cellar is dug into the region’s famed tuffeau rocks. It’s impossible to say when it dates from, but the pick-axe marks show us it was all done by hand. As we admire it and marvel at how much work it must have been, we also notice a strange shape at the end. Alexandre nods, saying,
As it’s long and dark, it stays very cool even in midsummer. This does mean, however, that fermentation is slow. This means for his whites, if he releases them after 12 months, he needs to add some more sulphites and do a light filtration if necessary. His goal for the future is to do longer ageing periods of 24+ months.
To ensure his natural fermentations are healthy, he begins with a pied de cuve (whereby he harvests a small bucket of grapes before harvest to begin fermentation, a bit like a sourdough starter), and adds 20mg/L of sulphites when he presses the grapes. Depending on the wine, this might be the only time he adds sulphites. He explains,
He assesses the level of risk for each wine on an individual basis. For example, for his Cabernet Franc 2018, which aged for 24 months, he felt confident that the wine was stable to bottle unfined, unfiltered and without further addition of sulphites. It is produced from destemmed fruit (Cabernet fruit has a tendency to ripen before the stems are ripe) with a short maceration period of around ten days. For his beloved Gamay, however, he likes to use whole bunches, and he extends the maceration period to somewhere between two and three weeks.
After we’ve tasted from barrel, Alexandre opens one of his recently bottled wines from his own vineyards. We smile at the cow on the label, but also realise we’ve only spoken about horses. We ask, quizzingly.
We smile and nod. We’re certain that more animals will be part of the increasingly diverse Giquel stable soon. Here’s to the cows of the future!