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The smallest vineyard - Giraud Wines

The smallest vineyard - Giraud Wines

Grape harvest time seems to be the perfect moment to discover the smallest vineyard in France – and the top quality wines that Gontran Beaudoin produces by hand in the accompanying winery... 

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Tucked down a small lane in the sleepy commune of Verrières, just behind a stand of ancient oaks, is Giraud Wines. The winery is unique as it is only a single acre in size, making it the smallest domain registered to both grow grapes and produce wine. Not large enough to make a living from, this is, even so, a serious hobby for Gontran Beaudoin, whose small-scale operation means perfection and attention to detail in a big way. His Giraud Wines concept is all about quality and exclusivity. Sitting comfortably in the decidedly cognac landscape, this tiny vineyard, with its accompanying traditional white stone house, produces wine that has been treated with the utmost care to ensure the highest quality.

The best way to understand Gontran's philosophy for his wine is to sit and have a meal with him, as this reveals a lot about the man and his ethos. At his sun-bleached wooden table in the shade of a Linden tree, with the late summer sunshine bathing the warm, stone wall behind him, he cuts into a homegrown Charentaise melon. 

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"I believe that one person should be responsible for the whole process of producing a food item. Take this cheese, for instance," he says, indicating a Camembert. "Did you know that there is only one producer of Camembert cheese in France who actually makes the whole thing, from rearing the cow to packaging the cheese?"

The table is scattered with sprigs of fresh basil, mint and chives, and a couple of small shallot onions, to be added according to taste. The substantial bowl of deep red tomatoes have all been peeled and de-seeded since they were picked, only an hour ago, while olive oil and Ile de Ré salt are standing by. "This year I am buying olives from a producer I've found in Greece and my sun dried tomatoes are made by a friend in California." This drive for perfection reveals a community where the food is really traceable to a greater depth than the average supermarket would have you believe. And Gontran's contribution to this community is his wine.

The house and vineyard, set in the Grande Champagne region of Cognac, date back to 1830 and the vineyard is planted with Pinot Noir grapes. "It's one of the varieties used for champagne. We have the same soil type here so it's ideally suited." The vines were placed close together to maximise coverage and to make each vine competitive so that they throw down deep roots. Everything in this vineyard is painstakingly done by hand so that it is as natural as possible.

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You can see Gontran's commitment to quality the week before the harvest, when all the grapes that aren't up to his standards are cut and left to rot on the ground. The harvest itself is carried out by a select group of friends and family, who have been on standby for the call telling them that now is the perfect time to pick. For the preceding weeks Gontran has been studying the weather, balancing climatic conditions with the quality of the juice in the grapes. "The harvest time is always the most exciting for me. I love seeing the results of a year's work. The build up to it can be worrying though. I watch the weather and don't sleep through a storm. If you hear that hail is forecast, you know you could lose everything for that year."

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On the morning of the vendange, as the sun creeps over the vista of surrounding vineyards, each picker is carefully briefed that even individual substandard grapes should be removed from each bunch, before placing them in the collecting buckets. "The entire process is extremely labour intensive and I only produce around 600 to 800 bottles each year; but each one is my own work of art." While his wife lays a feast on a long table for the tired workers, the grapes are carefully placed into a stainless steel soaking vat. Gontran's special process for his wine involves putting what looks like a towel rail, which is connected to a chiller unit, into the grapes. "I don't want fermentation to start just yet so I keep the temperature low to get the maximum flavour from the grapes before I start making the wine."

One might believe the grapes to be pressed by foot, but these grapes are treated much more gently. The only pressing that is carried out is by the weight of the grapes on themselves, a process called 'free run' that ensures only the sweetest juice is released, with no bitterness from the skins. At the optimum time the juice is gravity fed (no pumps used here) into the barrel room, where it is installed in three or four of Gontran's own handmade oak barrels. He even knows which French forest the wood came from to make them. The fermentation is then allowed to commence naturally without any yeast being added. After this, the wine will spend up to a year quietly ageing in the cool of the cellar before being bottled and labelled by hand.

Gontran was trained as an oenologist and cut his teeth in America and Australia. Since then he has travelled to nearly all the major wine growing regions of the world and has selected the best practices from these countries to use in his own wine. After eight years of nurturing, Gontran has discovered a lot about the persona of his own vines. "The vineyard is like a child: it needs a few years to develop its character and for the vineyard and winemaker to get to know each other." This relationship means Gontran can instinctively perfect his timing and get the best from each harvest. "You can take the same picture on a camera ten times, but each one will be slightly different. It's the same with wine: same vines, same land – but each year brings different results and that's exciting."

Rural business Oct 100003Gontran's main business, New Alternative Oak (NAO) is a producer of high-end oak products for the wine industry and, as a result, he regularly travels the world, concentrating on some surprising emerging wine countries such as China, Russia, India and Mexico. "I set up my business ten years ago, so now that I'm established I have more time for a hobby. Some people play golf, but I make wine. It's been in my family for generations: my mother was born in the hills of Mascara, Algeria, which is famous for its red wine, and my parents and parents-in-law all make wine or cognac. I think it's a natural French thing. It's part of our culture to do something sustainable, to have something to pass on. My vineyard brings together family and friends throughout the year and it's something that I can give to my community now and to my family for the next generation."

The ultimate proof of a good wine, though, has to be in the drinking – and his vintages ogten sell out within months of bottling. "I want people to drink my wines, enjoy them to the last drop and taste every flavour the grapes can give."

In the cellar, over a glass of wine and accompanied by some local bread and cheese, Gontran watches over what will be his next vintage and reflects on another successful year and his passion for the smallest vineyard in France. "I have something to care about here. It's nice to be creative and dream how it will be in ten and twenty years' time. It's an interesting challenge to develop a new picture in the landscape of my life."

WORDS BY MANDIE DAVIS, PHOTOS BY CHRIS DAVIES - Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes Magazine October 2010  © All Rights Reserved


Giraud Wines

16130 Verrières.

+33 (0)6 08 04 16 40 and