Wine, since I come from France, is obviously part of our culture. We drink wines with meals - since I was a kid I remember seeing wine on the table. But I never pushed further until I decided to follow some studies and complete a certification. At the beginning it was like a game, a fun thing to do.
You were in the wine trade before you really started to appreciate wine?
The certification was wine business, how to deal with wines, how to trade, how to sell wines. So I never learned how to make wine, but I did learn some techniques. The point was to learn everything we need to know about wines in order to talk about it and sell it. Slowly, it became very interesting. I had a chance to meet passionate people and I think that’s the key. People working in the wine industry have to be passionate. The wine industry is not too complex or difficult to understand - it’s constantly evolving and changing. So in order to keep doing what you do, you can always review, always learn more. It becomes more and more addictive, and you meet new people and those people have new experience they share with you.
Arriving in this environment of passionate and professional people, it started to make sense. It was fun to learn, it was extremely interesting, and that’s why I decided to go deeper and deeper. Once I started to travel, I found that different countries and different cultures had different takes on wine. I went to Canada and ended up selling wines there for a year. The North American approach is different. North Americans are not drinking wines the way the Europeans are drinking wine. In Europe you drink it with your meal, while over in North America you just drink the wine by itself. It was quite new.
I arrived in Vietnam nine years ago. I had to study another style, another culture, another approach once again. I have to say I’ve been quite lucky these past 10 years because I managed to learn about wine. I’ve been guided by great mentors, discovered different content, different cultures, different ways of drinking wine. I still feel like I’m at the beginning of my apprenticeship.
Do you regret the way you used to think about wine, now that you know much more?
My principle philosophy is never to regret. Whatever you do it’s helping you in some way. It may have been wrong, but it pushed you to do something you weren’t “meant” to do. However, I regret probably my French vision of wines. I’ve been conservative for a long time and I had to go outside France in order to rediscover a product I thought I was familiar with, since it was part of our French culture. I am learning and relearning at the same time.
For example in France, we stored and aged wines for specific occasions, there was a ceremony around it. In North America, they don’t necessarily want that, they want to have something fun, easy drinking, something to support their party. Drinking a glass on its own - which in France was looked at as a bad thing. Now it’s changing, obviously, but back then drinking wine alone gave the image of an alcoholic. You could drink a beer, that was fine. But as soon as you drink a beverage outside of its context, which is wine during a meal, that meant you were becoming an alcoholic.
That’s the only thing I’d say I regret: spending too long in France and having a strong conservative vision about it. But, in the end, it ended up alright.
Many people might consider wine as not tasting good if it doesn’t taste “French” enough. How can people judge wines if they are outside of what they had come to expect, how would you tell if a wine that tastes “different” is actually good?
In my position, the hardest part is to appreciate wines and trying to avoid my personal taste. Which is obviously difficult. Here we’re talking about drinking or eating, it’s not just watching a movie or listening to something. So it’s purely relative to feeling, taste and palate. The best way to overcome this is to work on techniques, even though I don’t like to say techniques for wine, they will help you stay focused on the basic components of what a wine should have, and judge it the way it is, knowing at least if it’s correctly made. And then tasting the taste. This is what all the wine critics are doing: they’re trying to be as neutral as possible and judging the wine based on the wine itself and not their personal taste.
It happens that I taste wines that are really not my cup of tea, but I find them interesting, because it’s a style that’s not available where I come from. It brings another story, another opportunity for me to help someone else discover something new, and not necessarily French. Yeah, French are doing good wines, but not only. They’re doing bad wines too.
How do you teach someone to judge a wine without bias, maybe some basic requirements, a technique?
It helps to have a bit of knowledge of the product. How do you compare a Mercedes to a Nissan? Basically it looks the same, it does the same thing, but there is a way to tell if either product is made correctly. So we have to have a bit of information. But I believe the technique itself - we’re transforming a fruit, using the juice, and making a beverage out of it. Knowing the origin and the characteristic of the grape is important.
What is more important is using our tools to help us. And those tools are our nose, our eyes and our palate. I would recommend spending some time getting to know your palate. Basically knowing something acidic is acidic, something dry is dry, something heavy is heavy, something aromatic is aromatic. Slowly you will get to know more about it. The wrong approach would be to say that you’re learning everything by heart. It’s simply impossible, there are too many things. You have to do your own discovery, you learn much more than just by reading books. You don’t learn to cook just by reading cookbooks after all.
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Would you recommend looking at wine reviews or tasting notes online?
You could but not too much, because we have a risk of reading an interpretation of someone’s taste and that would be going in the wrong direction. It’s nice to see what people may say about the components of the wine - its citrus aromas and complexity, but even better would be then to research what they mean by citrus aroma and complexity, so we can reuse it in our own way.
First thing’s first - you taste the wine, and you like or you don’t. It’s only after comes the idea of trying to describe it. I have seen people who have an amazing palate, they’re able to taste wines, but they are fine where they are, they are not passionate, just taste well. Wine has to stay a pleasure and has to stay something fun. If you want to be a bit more technical, there is a lot of room for that.
Of course with good company. Drinking wine alone is absolutely not fun. You do not have to enjoy any specific wine, and it doesn’t have to be with a connoisseur. I like the endless discussions that can last hours about a single aroma none of us are able to spot, trying to surprise each other with a certain wine, trying to impress each other with the latest discovery. On the other hand, when having an easy, good glass of wine with great friends or company, the wine tends to support the conversation. It helps bring people together, it relaxes people. Beverages in general have this ability. Beer, whiskey.
What would be basic don’t-do’s when drinking wine?
That’s a hard question - we all have our personal preferences. Personally, I would say do not drink wine by yourself - you have nothing to share, and you need to share. Do not drink wine too fast; after opening the bottle the wine mixes with oxygen more and more and releases new aromas, so it’s worth it to take your time with the glass. Do not overchill white wines - most of the white wines I’ve been served have been overchilled and this completely misses the taste. Do not judge a wine by reviews - that’s first and foremost. Taste it first.
Find the right glass - this is extremely important. I was organising a dinner last night for some corporate customer of mine. The red wine glasses looked great, but they were the completely wrong direction for the wine, bringing out too much alcohol and making the taste unpleasant. I asked to switch to smaller white wine glasses - which didn’t look pretty but it brought the wines to the correct taste. Everybody was quite surprised. Yes, you have the nice, big red wine glasses and it looks great on the table, however the wine in these glasses was not enjoyable and we were talking about an expensive bottle.
In the end, you will need to sip the wine to confirm what glass is best.
Never put your hands on the wine glass, hold it by the stem. The exception is if you want to warm it faster - however, if you’ve noticed, now we have stemless wine glasses, which is going the completely opposite way. Even the biggest glassware producers such as Riedel have a line of stemless glasses. It doesn’t really affect the temperature much and these glasses are mainly used for tasting. Etiquette is always changing - there are things now we say we shouldn’t do that in 10 years won’t really matter anymore.
What is your favourite wine, and what’s your most hated wine?
My favourite wine would be a balanced wine - so I’m not going to put a name on it. My most hated is a boring wine - that doesn’t necessarily mean a bad wine. When wines turn bad, I don’t consider it the wine’s fault - it would be a storage problem, a winemaking problem, and so on. Bad tasting wines don’t annoy me - it could happen. However a boring wine - a wine that doesn’t bring emotion, that doesn’t bring the excitement of a specific taste or aromatic combination, this is something I don’t like.
Currently I’m into red wines - specifically a pinot noir from New Zealand from the Martinborough region. It’s powerful, but at the same time elegant like a pinot, a bit musky but fruity. This region makes their pinot not too heavy, not too juicy, not too round - more musky, masculine, more animal. I like the structure of these wines. I like wines that have tannin but that are not overly dry. And at the moment I’m a little bit more into pinot noir more than anything else.
What would you tell someone who avoids New World wines?
You should not be reluctant - there are great wines everywhere. The principle of categorizing Old World and New World - that’s already a problem, and it’s too restrictive. Nowadays we are able to taste wines from the New World that taste like Old World wines. There is no limitations. This was maybe the case 25 years ago but not anymore. We are now able to taste amazing wines from the other side of the planet, and they are bringing a taste that Old World wines are unable to provide.
Red wine and cheese - I like the combination because you have so much possibility on both sides. There are plenty of cheeses and the same for the wines. It works well with white wines too.
When you’re able to match something basic - french fries, for example - and you’re able to combine it with an interesting red wine and enhance the food’s flavour, it’s a great moment of course. As is getting a perfect matching with oysters or caviar.
The pairing should be creating a specific new flavour, mixing the wine taste and the food taste. And the quality of the matching is not dependant on the price of the bottle. It can be the cheapest wine possible, but you match it properly and end up with something great. Playing with regular wines and regular snacks - that’s a great game.
Is it correct to judge a wine’s value by its price?
You cannot judge a bottle by its price - it depends what you use it for. Of course a wine that is cheaper will be less deeper, less complex, less complete than a $300 bottle. You pay something more so you expect something more. Now that doesn’t mean the cheaper bottle is bad, it just depends what you drink the wine for.
If you’re on the side of a swimming pool and you want a nice, dry rose wine, you don’t necessarily need an expensive bottle of wine. Now for the $300 bottle, you will - I hope - spend time bringing the situation for it. I’m not saying you have to do an official ceremony for opening of the bottle - you can do it as casual as possible, just opening it for a group of friends. But it will mean something different. Both wines can be great, though.