Portrait of a Wine Man on a Mission

February 7, 2009By Paris UpdateWhat's New Potpourri

Soil in the Glass

Hervé Lethielleux, right, sharing a glass of organic wine with American David Costa, manager of La Cave Café, a bistro/wine bar specializing in organic wines on Rue Marcadet in the 18th arrondissement.

“Earthiness is the most important thing in a bottle of wine and the most difficult thing to get,” says Hervé Lethielleux, with the assurance of a man who knows his business, “because it means the winemaker has to do a lot of work.”

Lethielleux, whose passion for wine is contagious, has been the sommelier at one of the most highly regarded wine shops in Paris’s sixth arrondissement for 15 years now. Before that, he worked for 10 years in the restaurant business in Paris and London, honing his knowledge of French wines along with his colorful – and now masterful – use of English.

A rock-and-roll lover who has been known to enjoy a beer in bars where his favorite musicians play, Lethielleux considers himself a man on a mission, “like Jesus Christ,” to educate wine drinkers. Passionate he is, and even more so about organic wines. His “top of the pops” are biodynamic wines, and organic and biodynamic winegrowers who respect the soil, the grapes, the planet and the wine drinker.

For him, choosing a good wine is easy if you follow one rule: “You have to know the good winemakers. That’s the most important thing. To me wine has nothing to do with years or regions or grapes — it has to do with who’s making the wine.”

When he speaks about “earthiness,” Lethielleux is referring to what the French call le terroir, the soil, and, more broadly, the specific qualities of a particular area, including its soil type and climatic conditions. When asked what makes a wine stand out, he says, “The capacity of the winemaker to bring the soil to your glass.”

France, he says, unquestionably has the best soil, and the winemaker, “like an artist,” should know how to work with it. He admits, however that “it takes a long time to get into wine, because you have to taste so many different ones in order to find your taste, to find what’s good for you.”

One of the reasons Lethielleux promotes organic winegrowers is that they don’t use synthetic pesticides. According to a 2008 study by the Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe), 100 percent of the conventional European wines tested (34 bottles) contained pesticides. Five of the six organic wines tested showed no pesticide content. (The pesticides in the one organic bottle are believed to have come from run-off from locations other than the vineyard.) Though the pesticide levels in the conventional wines tested were within European norms, the news is still disturbing, especially since five of the pesticides concerned are “carcinogenic” and “mutagenic,” according to the analysis.

What Lethielleux also loves about organic wines is that the best organic winegrowers are extremely careful about growing good, healthy grapes, so that they can get away with using very few sulfites, far less than in conventional wines. Sulfites have been used for nearly two-hundred years in France to stabilize wine so that it doesn’t turn vinegary. Since 2005, European regulations have required winegrowers to mention on their labels that their wines contain sulfites, because a very small percentage of the population (roughly 0.4 percent, according to the American FDA) is highly allergic to them.

All wines contain sulfites, as they are naturally present on grape skins, but winegrowers often add even more. “If you use sulfites all the time, it means your vines are not in great shape,” says Lethielleux. “The work has to be done before the harvest.” For conventional winegrowers, using sulfites is “like using aspirin” – a cure-all. “The organic people, they don’t cure, they prevent. If your harvest is nice and clean, you don’t need to do that.” Even the best winegrowers, however, need to use few sulfites, only a touch when the wine is bottled, or about one gram per hectoliter, which, according to Lethielleux, “is practically nothing.”

“You don’t need to drink the wine to understand. Just talk to the winemaker, and in five seconds” – he snaps his fingers – “you feel like drinking the wine.”

When you drink a glass of organic wine containing few sulfites, you might find a fragrance reminiscent of a barnyard. Lethielleux describes this smell as “volatile.” “Volatile is something natural. It’s that vinegar smell. You have to master that. Though I tend to defend biodynamic winemakers and organic winemakers, sometimes the wine is just undrinkable,” he admits.

When the winemaker knows what he is doing, Lethielleux notes, you can even learn to appreciate a certain funkiness in his wine. And when the winemaker is great, you’ll know it.

To help Paris Update readers, who understandably might have trouble grasping just what he means by earthiness, Lethielleux has provided a list of recommended French winemakers and where they can be found in Paris (see below). If you try some of them and notice the smell and taste of a French farm in your glass, the true meaning of the word terroir will be revealed to you.

To get a taste of what the man himself is like, see the videos below.

Jeanne Bernard

Hervé Lethielleux tastes and analyzes an organic wine:

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Hervé Lethielleux talks about sulfites in wine:

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Organic and biodynamic wines recommended by Hervé Lethielleux:


Domaine Jamet
Vin de Pays, Côte du Rhone reds and whites, and Côte-Rôtie.

Available from:

Bacchus et Ariane
4 rue Lobineau, 6th.
Email: bacchusariane@free.fr

Le Verre Volé
38 rue Oberkampf, 75011 Paris
Tel: 01 43 14 99 46
67, rue de Lancry, 75010 Paris
Tel.: 01 48 03 17 34

Caves du Panthéon
174 Rue Saint-Jacques, 5th.
Tel: 01 46 33 90 35.

Les Papilles
30, rue Gay-Lussac, 75005
Tel : 01 43 25 20 79


Michel Issaly
“All reds and whites. Great sweet wines. Not available in many shops in Paris. Get in touch with them directly.”


Château Tour Grise wines from the village of Le Puy Notre Dame.
“All colors and all colors with bubbles (except red). And sweet wines.”

Available from:

Caves des Martyrs
39 rue des Martyrs, 75009 Paris
Tel.: 01 40 16 80 27

Vers le Vin
11, rue Chernoviz, 75016 Paris
Tel.: 01 45 27 48 32

© 2009 Paris Update

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