There were seven red wines to taste last night, which might seem a daunting task to some. But not to the twelve people assembled at On Rue Tatin, the lion’s share of a group of friends that meets monthly for what is, each time, an extraordinary experience.
Our wine guru is Hervé Lestage, oenologue and owner of a wine store and wine bar in Honfleur, La Feuille de Vigne. Hervé, a friend for almost 20 years, is the antithesis of a wine expert. He ambles in with his wines, ambles through setting up the tasting, ambles himself onto the stool at the head of the table, then takes us on a wild ride through wines that never cease to amaze.
Hervé does all of this without ever suggesting what we should look for. He knows the wines by heart but to him we’re the experts, sussing out things from our blind tastings that he might never have found on his own.
Hervé wants wine tasting to be democratic. He is convinced we all know what we like and we don’t need him, or anyone else, to tell us. We just need to get comfortable with wine, to have confidence in our ability to taste it. He continually shepherds us, and his clients, towards that goal by focusing on the soul of the winemaker.
“If a vintner puts his or her soul in the work, we’ll find it in the bottle,” Hervé says. That is why he only sells wine from people he cares about. “I might find a good wine,” he says. “But if the person behind it isn’t someone I want to spend an evening with, well, I won’t carry their wine.”
Hervé introduced us many years ago to “natural” wines, what he calls “wines made in the vineyard” through careful cultivation and vinification techniques, rather than those made in the laboratory. He talks about “old world” wine versus “new world wines,” those made with modernized yet time-honored techniques, and those that are manipulated with sugar and flavors to sell widely.
All of the wines we taste are old-world French. Many are either biodynamic or organic, though these are not Herve’s criteria for good wine. “Remember,” he says. “Organic and biodynamic aren’t quality labels, they are cultivation methods.”
Last night one of the reds was “troubled” or cloudy. A decade ago, such a wine would have been discounted. Today, though, because many wine makers don’t filter their wine, a troubled wine can be as good or better than one that is crystal clear. Another of the wines had a “murmur” a slight spritz at first taste. Again, this was considered a defect a decade ago. Now we know to give a murmur a chance – swirl the wine in the glass, give it some time. Nine times out of ten, the murmur goes away.
While tasting with Hervé, we talk a lot about memory and feelings inspired by wines. Sometimes no one cares for a wine, and that is often the one that will come back at a later wine tasting, to give it and us another chance. “The wines you don’t first like are the ones to pay attention to,” Hervé says. “The ones you love? You never have to drink those again, there are so many new wines to discover.”
He’s proven this true time after time because, as he reminds us, wine is a living thing and we are beings of mood, time, and place. “We all bring ourselves to the wine, it’s not just what’s in a glass,”
As Marie, one of our group, a no-nonsense mathematician, and a wine aficionado, says “Our Hervé is a poet, a ‘spirit’ who always teaches me something new about wine, and about myself.”
You’ll meet Hervé during a five-day class at On Rue Tatin. Until then, herewith a few of his pearls:
When you don’t know much about wine and want to buy a bottle, look at all the labels. When your mouth waters, choose that wine.
If you don’t like a wine, try it again. If you love a wine, you don’t have to try it again, there are so many new wines to discover.
Start paying attention to wine the minute it pours from the bottle; you can learn a lot about it from watching.
Once it’s in the glass look at it, smell it, swirl it, smell it again, taste it.
Don’t wear perfume or aftershave to a wine tasting.
Choose a glass you’re comfortable with so you’re not stressed when you’re holding it. Stress isn’t good for wine, and it passes from hand to glass to wine
Swirl your wine, pay attention to it, don’t neglect it. Your wine is your friend, and you don’t neglect your friends.
Always drink wine from a glass with a stem. This way the bowl stays clean, the wine stays cool, and you can swirl it when you want to.
When you’re doing a wine tasting, keep the food simple – always bread, cheese, air-cured sausages, maybe a dessert.
Finally, what wine should you serve? Herve says: choose a wine you love. It will go with whatever you’re serving.
Here is a dessert recipe for your next wine tasting. It’s proven as a perfect accompaniment to your favorite wine.