By Jason Feulner
One of the more interesting observations I made on a recent visit to Domaine Le Seurre was noted first by the interview subject, winemaker Sébastien Le Seurre, in the midst of our conversation on a variety of topics related to their craft. “You see that tasting?” he asked mid-thought, referring to the visitors on the other side of the room who had been engaged in their experience nearly as long as it took me to gather in-depth details on the operation. “It is typical for these to last so long – we like to educate customers with our wines.”
In that moment Sébastien so poignantly illustrated the theme of Domaine Le Seurre. The winery, perched on the eastern shore of Keuka Lake, about a 10-minute drive north of Hammondsport, strives to offer its customers knowledge. There are small placards throughout the tasting room highlighting relevant sweetness scales of Riesling, the process of stirring up the fine lees, and even the origin of barrels. At first I thought these little cues might stem from the proprietor’s cognizance of their accented English – a prompt to help carry conversations – but it became clear as our conversation progressed that they truly enjoyed imparting knowledge through wine almost as much as the wine itself. The tasting room felt, in part, like a classroom.
Sébastien Le Seurre is a sixth-generation winemaker from Champagne, France, where his father, uncles and cousin all separately produce wine under labels bearing the family name. Sebastien’s wife Céline is originally from the Toulouse region in the southwest of France, and grew up around her grandparents’ vineyard located in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
After receiving his oenology education in Champagne, Sébastien decided to experience winemaking in a variety of different regions around France, and also in New Zealand and Australia. Céline originally based her career on the consumer side of wine as a sommelier and hospitality expert, but over time focused more on viticulture and winemaking as well. The two met in 2009 in New Zealand while working at Clos Henri Vineyard, a French-owned vineyard in the Marlborough region known for Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
In 2011, Sébastien and Céline came to the Finger Lakes to work at another winery, but soon fell in love with the area and its promise. “The Finger Lakes is at the beginning,” says Sébastien, relating why he became excited about the region. He stresses that they did not end up in the region by default, but settled here based on careful observations about the region’s diversity of terroir, or growing sites, and what they saw as untapped potential in many areas of winemaking.
The first vintage for Domaine Le Seurre was 2012 and the tasting room opened in late 2013. Sébastien is adamant that Céline is central to the winemaking process. “I taste a lot,” she explains, detailing how she and Sébastien feel their way through it, reacting to the variables of the vintage, the fermentations and the developing wines. They choose their harvest times based on how the grapes taste, and they treat and blend wines based on their instincts and knowledge gathered from over 19 vintages in the Finger Lakes and around the world. Sébastien and Céline are a winemaking team from beginning to end.
Domaine Le Seurre does not have its own vineyard yet – the parcel around the tasting room has the potential for about 8 acres – but the wheels are set in motion for Sébastien and Céline to create a biodynamic vineyard that suites their theories on viticulture. Sébastien outlines their plans in great detail. They include staged soil de-compaction, the introduction of microorganisms, and the planting of dense rows (more common in Europe) to ward off disease. It will be some time for the property to be acclimated to this plan, but Sébastien and Céline hope to start planting in the foreseeable future.
The winemaking methods employed at Domaine Le Seurre are not unheard of in the Finger Lakes, but the winery’s adherence to hands-on winemaking puts it in the company of a select few boutiques. Extended hang time, prolonged skin contact, cool fermentations – sometimes lasting 10 months – are all important elements of the approach at Domaine Le Seurre. Céline emphasizes the batonnage sur lies, or stirring of the fine lees, which is the manipulation of fermentation sediment that requires careful calibration. “If done right, the lees create complexity and mouthfeel,” she explains, while cautioning that such an approach can be overdone.
“We do a lot of little tasting trials,” Sébastien adds, “to get the wine exactly where we want.”
Overall, one gets the impression that Sébastien and Céline have made a long-term investment in the Finger Lakes. They are adamant about cellar aging their wines for years if necessary, and they let wines settle in bottles for months before offering them for sale. When asked about their production scale, Sébastien shrugs and instead talks of vintages and Terroir. There is a passion at Domaine Le Seurre that is unmistakable. “Europe has had hundreds of years to figure out the best ways to make wine,” Sébastien reflects, “but in the Finger Lakes I don’t even think the best sites have been planted yet.” He remains excited about the discoveries to come.
The methodical and experience-driven winemaking approach at Domaine Le Seurre results in wines that are dripping with individual character. The 2013 dry Riesling has a beautiful mid-palate and mouth feel, while the 2013 barrel select Riesling (100 percent neutral oak) stands out with its welcoming aromatics.
There are two versions of the 2013
Chardonnay available, unoaked and barrel select, and they are a testament to the potential of a grape that unfortunately has become more obscure in the Finger Lakes as of late.
The 2012 Cabernet Franc features mature fruit with herbal and tobacco notes and a smooth finish; the patience of the winemaking team has created a full-bodied Cab Franc that avoids the vegetative notes that plague so many other versions of this varietal in the Finger Lakes.
Domaine Le Seurre is located 8 miles north of Hammondsport on the eastern shore of Keuka Lake at 13920 NY-54, Hammondsport, NY 14840. It is open every day from mid-May through mid-November and on weekends for the rest of the year. Please call the tasting room for more detailed hours.