Winemakers bring ‘French touch’ to Virginia

When Matthieu Finot moved to Virginia, he only planned to stay for a year. That was a decade ago. He's now among a growing number of French winemakers setting up shop in the US state, where former president and Francophile Thomas Jefferson struggled to produce grapes 200 years ago.

Winemakers bring 'French touch' to Virginia
Winemaker Matthieu Finot (L) helps sort grapes during the winemaking process at the King Family vineyard in Crozet, Virginia. Photo: Fabienne Faur/AFP

The 40-year-old Finot grew up in the Crozes-Hermitage wine region in south-eastern France on the banks of the Rhone River before traveling here, to the foot of the Appalachian Mountains.

"We all came here a little bit by chance," said Finot, who works at the vast King Family Vineyards, which sprawls across 30 acres (12 hectares) in the town of Crozet.

"I don't think any one of us had intended to stay over the long term."   

The King vineyards are not far from Jefferson's home Monticello.

The third US president — and accomplished botanist — struggled in vain to overcome the heat, humidity and pests that attacked the European grape varieties he planted.

Today, seven of the 30-some wineries around the region's big city of Charlottesville are managed by Frenchmen.

Finot says he came to the area to "make Virginian wine with a bit of French flair."

With his French wine-growing certificate in hand, Finot traveled extensively in South Africa, New Zealand and California before moving to Virginia, where he met his wife and started his family.

"There is a way to make quality wines here. It's a very small business. We all work together," he said.

'More freedom'

At a nearby vineyard, Benoit Pineau said he also first came to Virginia with plans to work there "just for a season."

Pineau, 33, has now been at Pollak Vineyards for three years, after stints in Australia, Canada and Chile.

"It's easier to be here than in France," said Pineau, who hails from the central French city of Tours.

"You have more freedom. You can plant whatever you want, however you want."

That is a far cry from the strict guidelines followed in France.  

In the United States, "everything is guided by the laws of the market.

There are no government subsidies," said Finot.

Both Pineau and Finot work with French grape varieties, including Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Viognier and Chardonnay.

But make no mistake, the wine is Virginian.

"We are trying to develop a style that is a better match for what grows here, with a 'French touch' in the way the grape is handled," said Finot.

Virginia boom 

Virginian wine, which barely existed 40 years ago, is now experiencing a boom of sorts, with consumers in the greater Washington area keen to "eat local".

In the past 20 years, the number of wine businesses has increased fivefold. There are now about 230 wine producers in the region, many of them family-run businesses with cellars open to visitors and weekend tastings that draw loads of tourists on weekends.

"Wine appreciation is spreading. We are still teenagers in the wine world," said Carrington King, whose family — originally from Texas — has invested in the region.

"There is a real movement going on in Virginia (but) it takes time — it's not always overnight. Every year, we get better and better. We improve and learn from our mistakes."

The United States this year became the biggest domestic market wine market in terms of volume of sales, according to the Paris-based International Organization of Vine and Wine.

"Just being French doesn't automatically make you a good wine expert," said Finot.

"But being French and in the wine business is something in demand, just as it is for bakers and chefs. We have a reputation that allows us to travel. We are lucky."

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Cold snap ‘could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent’

A rare cold snap that froze vineyards across much of France this month could see harvest yields drop by around a third this year, France's national agriculture observatory said on Thursday.

Cold snap 'could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent'
A winemaker checks whether there is life in the buds of his vineyard in Le Landreau, near Nantes in western France, on April 12th, following several nights of frost. Photo: Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP

Winemakers were forced to light fires and candles among their vines as nighttime temperatures plunged after weeks of unseasonably warm weather that had spurred early budding.

Scores of vulnerable fruit and vegetable orchards were also hit in what Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie called “probably the greatest agricultural catastrophe of the beginning of the 21st century.”

IN PICTURES: French vineyards ablaze in bid to ward off frosts

The government has promised more than €1 billion in aid for destroyed grapes and other crops.

Based on reported losses so far, the damage could result in up to 15 million fewer hectolitres of wine, a drop of 28 to 30 percent from the average yields over the past five years, the FranceAgriMer agency said.

That would represent €1.5 to €2 billion of lost revenue for the sector, Ygor Gibelind, head of the agency’s wine division, said by videoconference.

It would also roughly coincide with the tally from France’s FNSEA agriculture union.

Prime Minister Jean Castex vowed during a visit to damaged fields in southern France last Saturday that the emergency aid would be made available in the coming days to help farmers cope with the “exceptional situation.”

READ ALSO: ‘We’ve lost at least 70,000 bottles’ – French winemakers count the cost of late frosts