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From France to the Finger Lakes – Meet Winemakers, Céline and Sébastien LeSeurre

From France to the Finger Lakes – Meet Winemakers, Céline and Sébastien LeSeurre

If you ask me where my next travel destination would be, I would immediately blurt out – FRANCE! I’ve always had an affinity for anything French. The food, the culture, the language…the wine! It seems like the French just seem to get everything right and effortlessly so. My husband and I recently moved to New York from Los Angeles and every Labor Day weekend, we typically go on a short weekend getaway. We try to incorporate wine tasting wherever we go so this year we decided to visit the beautiful hidden gem known as the Finger Lakes. I spent hours upon hours doing research on places to stay, visit, eat and of course drink. When I came across Domaine LeSeurre, I was immediately intrigued by the husband and wife winemaking powerhouse duo, Céline and Sébastien. Not only did I want to taste their wines but I wanted to hear their story. And of course, the fact that they have two daughters close in age to my own, I felt an even stronger connection.

Céline and Sébastien Leseurre

Shelly Presser (SP): Tell us a little bit about Domaine LeSeurre and why did you pick the Finger Lakes as your winemaking home?

Céline and Sébastien Leseurre (CL & SL): Sébastien and I are the winemaking team here at Domaine LeSeurre. We both hail from France, where we grew up surrounded by winemaking and immersed in family vineyards. 

Sébastien is a 6th generation winemaker from the Champagne region of northeast France where he studied viticulture and oenology for 6 years. Afterwards, he studied marketing and wine and spirits sales in Reims for a year before beginning his Master OIV MSC diploma. His studies took him around the world. In just one year, he visited 32 countries, meeting with winemakers and oenophiles all along the way.

I, Céline, was born in the Toulouse region of southwest France, in the foothills of the Pyrénées where I grew up around my grandparent’s vineyard. From 2002 until 2005, I took sommelier classes and graduated with a Degree in Hospitality and Tourism from Taylor’s College in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Both of us spent our childhood surrounded by grapes, immersed in family vineyards and the fine wines. This is where our passions for wine and viticulture began.

So, if it weren’t for our respective passions for wine, we never would have crossed paths in 2009 while we were both working at Clos Henri Vineyard in the Marlborough wine region of New Zealand where we handcrafted Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. After two years in New Zealand, we set off to travel the wine regions of the world. In 2011, we spent time at DeBortoli in the Yarra Valley of Australia, where we worked the 2011 vintage, making Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.

At this time, we both had separate opportunities to travel to the United States: Sébastien as a winemaker for a renowned local winery here in New York’s Finger Lakes region and I as a U.S. brand ambassador for the prestigious French winemaker Michel Chapoutier. We found ourselves excited and inspired by all of the quality wines we had tasted, so not long after arriving, we decided that we would follow our passion and build our dream here in the Finger Lakes. 

Collectively, we have worked 23 vintages, variously, in regions of France, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Our approach to winemaking is to use a mix of old-world traditions and new-world techniques, bringing out the fullest expression of the Finger Lakes terroir possible. Knowing that good wine starts in the vineyard, we travel extensively around the Finger Lakes region seeking out the best terroirs and grapes and we stay close to the vineyard during the growing season. As harvest grows close, we taste regularly – every two or three days – typically. A unique aspect of our winemaking process is that we do not measure Brix or levels of acidity; it is taste and taste, alone, which informs our picking decisions. 

Harvest at Domaine LeSeurre

SP: What is your winemaking style and how do you incorporate your French background into your winemaking?

CL & SL: Our style is a mix of old-world techniques that we learned in France, such as lees stirring (bâtonnage), and new world techniques that we learned in NZ, Australia and USA such as the use of cooling systems, but our focus is always on the terroir and how we can represent that in the bottle and the glass. Our Terroir wines are made in respect to each varietal’s specificity. These wines will change from vintage to vintage. Our goal is not to reproduce the same wine year after year as if we were following a recipe, but to work with what Mother Nature and these various terroirs provide us in any given year and to allow that to be reflected in the bottle and glass.  We are looking for a feeling and a taste; our technique will help us to achieve this style.We consider wine as an art, not chemistry, we love to say that the best wine is the one you like not if there is 8 g/L RS or more.

SP: How do you KNOW when you have a particularly good vintage?

CL & SL: Easy! When you walk in vineyard you want to eat all the grapes! And more than that you want to squeeze them all! No seriously, everything starts in the vineyard. As we like to say we cannot be better than the grapes. So well-maintained and low disease pressured vineyards are leading to beautiful bunches and this is the keys to a successful vintage.

SP: In the world of wine, who do you most admire and why? Who influenced you?

CL & SL: Of course, we have a lot of influences from home, France. Michel Chapoutier from the Rhône is a leader in biodynamic vineyard and Terroir wines, as well as Nicolas Joly from the Loire; they are very inspiring as we love this approach to vineyard and winemaking. Domaine Jacques Selosse from Champagne for his philosophy and beautiful Grand Cru Champagne as well as Domaine Weinbach for their beautiful vineyards and particularly their Riesling and Gewürztraminer wines in Alsace. Clos Solène in California, in Paso Nobles for their French influence, family style winery and wines in the USA, Domaine Tempier for their beautiful Rosé and Vega Sicilia for their attention to detail from vineyard to wine, and the velvety of their beautiful UNICO wine from Spain, Ribera del Duero. And Clos Henri of course is very special to us as we met there while working for them, and they are producing beautiful Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc in NZ. We’re sure there are many others we are forgetting! 

SP: Any wine making tips for those just getting into winemaking or those interested in studying wine?

CL & SL:  Our best tip would be to travel the world. We worked harvests in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, different countries France, Australia, New Zealand and USA …etc. And start by sorting the grapes, punching down the red bins…and learn everything from the beginning of vineyard management, wine making and sales if you want to really understanding it all. The most important tip we could give would be to try as many wines as you can from everywhere in the world! That is the best way to learn isn’t it? And fun also! 

SP: Do you have a favorite wine or vintage that you have made?

CL & SL:  2012 was very special to us as it was our first vintage to produce our own wines with our name on the label! On top of this, it was a great vintage for the Finger Lakes. 2015 and 2017 both are very special to us as it’s our girls’ birth year. Very emotional and very special vintages for us as Céline delivered both our babies right after harvest! Great timing! Pressing grapes more than 8 months pregnant is quite a life-changing experience!

SP: What has surprised you about being a winemaker(s)?

CL & SL:  We are always surprised to see winemakers with white hands at the end of Harvest! Haha! Red tannins are very persistent so all cellar workers have red hand at the end of harvest and even red feet if you are stomping the grapes with bare feet in order to separate the juice from the skins and stems! More seriously, we are always amazed by the power of nature, we have seen very cold winters in the Finger Lakes, and even still, the vines grow back. Also surprising are the warm weather we are witnessing recently in Champagne, France; Grapes actually burned on the vines because of a summer heat wave, and the vines will be producing beautiful fruits next year! Nature is so powerful and so beautiful to watch. As winemakers, we are merely farmers, and so in love for nature and its cycle, and our fundamental ambition is to respect it and represent its fruits the best.

Merlot at Domaine LeSeurre

SP: What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve?

CL & SL: Our ultimate goal in winemaking that we are still working to achieve is to train our two daughters, two years and four year old to love vineyards, grapes and wine as much as we do. We both started our winemaking training at about the same age. But we won’t force anything! We will always allow them to choose their own path outside of wine if they’d like. But we will at least impart the love of good food, good wines and good company. L’art de la table as we say in French.

SP: What do you love most about the Finger Lakes, and why?

CL & SL: Our first visit to the Finger Lakes was during harvest in 2011; the experience of Sébastien working at a local winery at this time was eye opening. This region has everything that we love; vineyards, great wines, beautiful sceneries, great local food, (we love NY state cheeses!) and a sense of community. We created our own winery because of these attributes in 2013, and afterwards a family and have never looked back. This region has incredible energy as youthful wine region with a lot of creativity and potential and we are so proud to be part of it. Our wines are inspired from our homeland coupled with our new home the Finger Lakes. Both of our children are born and raised here and every day, they are inspired by this beautiful region. This great wine community is now our extended family.

SP: I know the Finger Lakes is known for Riesling and Cab Franc – do you see any new trends emerging or varietals becoming popular in the Finger Lakes?

CL & SL: Lemberger is doing really well. Our Chardonnay Unoaked and Barrel Select have been receiving a lot of awards and attention and we love this grape, as it is reminding us a great deal of Burgundy. Merlot has potential too and we have ideas for some more secret grapes from Europe.

SP: I know you’re in the middle of harvest season, what do you find to be the hardest part of harvest?

CL & SL:  Long hours and cleaning is the hardest part of the harvest. Cleaning is fun for the first few days then cleaning the press in the middle of the cold November month at 3 AM on the morning is not so funny, especially if you’re getting all wet from the pressure washer! Luckily, we have some wine to keep us warm! More seriously, to be everywhere making wine, in the vineyard, in the tasting room, posting on social media…etc. is the hardest part, as there is only 12 hours in a day! Everyday is always different, and multitasking is key!