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“Working with the soil is something I adore. I am so passionate about soil health, and nothing compares to working the land by horse."

Alexandre Giquel

 

 

This young man was on track to become an accountant, but while bookkeeping for a winery, he realised the vines themselves held more appeal than the keyboard. But studying wine itself wasn’t enough; realising very little was taught about organics on his traditional wine course, he decided to seek natural alternatives to conventional viticulture. 

So, he did some research, and took a course in animal management. In turn, this led him to develop a particular fondness for plough horses, and last year he bought his own mare. 

This is true artisan vineyard management: in fact, Alexandre doesn’t even know how to drive a tractor. 

Meet Alexandre 

The fact that Alexandre’s first accountancy placement was at a winery would alter his destiny. He says,

“It was a complete 180. I realised I wanted to spend my life outside, not in front of a computer. So I began my wine studies and learnt on the job; I had no prior experience, so I really began in the deep end.” 

He began a degree in winemaking and viticulture, in France known as the BTS, but it soon frustrated him. He says, 

“I was very interested in organics, but it’s not something you discuss much in school. Every now and then, there’d be a mention such as, ‘oh – and if you work in organics, then you do it like this.’ But it was very much a small side-track; but that’s where my focus lay.”

At the same time, he worked in a conventional winery to gain some basic experience. 

“I didn’t like working with chemicals in the vineyard, and I also didn’t like the technological way in the cellar. But at the same time, it’s important to learn those methods, in order to understand what you like, and what you don’t like.” 

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: 

“Working with the soil is something I adore. I am so passionate about soil health, and nothing compares to working the land by horse. I don’t even know how to drive a tractor!”

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.

Horse Power

The Vineyards

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. 

“I’m happy at the size I am. Three hectares is a lot for someone who’s on their own. If I extended to four, something would have to give.”

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,

“I’ve been really inspired by some of the old-vine Gamay from the region. If you have genetic diversity and if the vines are managed correctly, it can create something beautiful. I’m so lucky to have found my vineyard.”

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.   

The apex is allowed to grow

Old-vine Chenin Blanc

Alexandre's non-hedged vineyard vs a neighbour's hedged vineyard

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. 

The Wines 

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:

“It’s not easy. 2019 was perfect – we had acidity and lower alcohol with phenolic maturity. But in 2018 it was really hard. We didn’t have the maturity, but we had a lot of alcohol. You need to try to get as close as possible to the limit of maturity. But if you push it too far, you’ll end up with 15% or 16% alcohol, which is tough territory to find yourself in for white wine.” 

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, 

“Yeah, I have no idea what that was for. Perhaps they wanted to make another room, but gave up because the rock was too hard.”

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. 

“In an ideal world, I’d love to only do long ageing, but obviously due to cash flow reasons that’s not always easy. A winemaker friend of mine, Michel Autrand, only does very long ageing, and I just find his wines genius. I love them. The advantage of longer ageing is you can get a really dry wine. If you do shorter fermentations with natural yeasts in a cool place, there’s almost always a touch of sugar remaining.”

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, 

“I like to add a small amount of sulphites at the start, as it secures the healthy yeasts for the natural fermentation. Most of the SO2 is consumed during fermentation and you might not even find it in the final wine when you do an analysis, but I think it makes a big difference.”

He continues, 

“When you work with such beautiful grapes that you’ve been farming for all year, you want to make sure you have the healthiest fermentation possible. I prefer to make sure the fermentation is happy and clean from the beginning, rather than having to correct any deviances. I think it’s a shame to have problems appear in the bottle, just because you don’t want to add sulphites. It’s a personal choice, of course, and there’s no singular method. I understand that others might feel differently, but this is my vision. I don’t like to take too many risks.”

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. 

“I like to use the semi-carbonic method for Gamay. I like having stems in the fermentation. Although they might give slightly green tannins at the start, they’re lovely tannins for the ageing process in the barrels. It gives a Gamay that has some tension; a Gamay that can age. I think this is the way to convince people about Gamay from the Loire.” 

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. 

“Well, I love animals. I can’t do everything at once, but I’d love to be able to get some cows one day. The goal for the future is to work with more of a polyculture.”

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! 

 

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