Talk with Jean-Marc Quarin
Interview by: Oleg Cherne
Mr. Jean-Marc Quarin is a renowned wine critic from the banks of the Garonne. He made a name for himself thanks to his wine ratings published in his official yearly report, and a stolid dedication to educational and research pursuits. Winemakers from all across the world seek his services. He isn’t just a celebrity, but a modern scribe of the history of wine. He introduces himself as «an archaeologist of taste.»
— Monsieur Quarin, in your job you taste a lot of different wines. How many of them would you say are of a truly high quality?
— About 60% of what I try doesn’t deserve its place in a tasting session.
— That’s a tough pill to swallow.
— Yes, it’s far from easy (laughs). It’s true though. Half of these wines are simply not good, while the other half are nothing special. What’s left over in the end between them is what’s truly worth drinking. You know, it’s a tricky situation, it’s so hard to choose a worthy wine.
At this point in our conversation, the waiter comes over to serve us the wine Mr. Quarin has selected. Before allowing him to pour the wine, the archaeologist smells his empty glass.
— Why did you just smell your empty glass?
— I always check the glass first. It’s a professional habit. Glasses often tend to absorb the smells of the restaurant. To eliminate all foreign smells, glasses must always be washed thoroughly with water. For instance, yesterday I visited a chateau… their glasses were crystal clear, but I could still catch some other smells.
— What would you say is your favorite type of wine?
— Cabernet Sauvignon.
— Out of all the wines out there containing Cabernet Sauvignon, what percent of that is quality wine? What do you see more of — good or bad Cabernet Sauvignon?
— Second-rate Cabernet Sauvignon is more common.
— In your opinion, where does this grape reveal its best qualities?
— First of all, it’s at its peak when grown in gravel soil. Cabernet Sauvignon ripens perfectly in warm, pebbly soil, or in the hills. This type of soil provides excellent drainage. This is what secured its reputation as a great wine—when it’s ripe, it’s not watery. It acquires the aroma of blackcurrants and a cold fireplace.
— What about Cabernet Sauvignon from regions other than Medoc, its native area?
— I think that only the taste of grapes cultivated in Medoc are true to form. When I try Cabernet Sauvignon from California, I taste mostly smoked notes. It also has tones of blackcurrant, but due to its higher alcohol content, the structure and feel of the wine changes.
— A number of Bulgarian experts believe the homeland of Cabernet Sauvignon is Bulgaria. What are your thoughts on that?
— I don’t know any Bulgarian wines, and I think they’re mistaking their wish for reality. Perhaps they should concentrate instead on improving the quality of their grapes today.
— Do you consider any wines from Medoc a worthy product?
— If you want your grape to have texture, there must be a layer of clay below the soil where it grows, like in Chateau Latour or Chateau du Moulin Rouge. The grapes cultivated there imbue wines with a special, broader impression inside your mouth. Without clay, Cabernet Sauvignon is a lot more straightforward. Besides, Cabernet Sauvignon is like the vertebral column, where you can add Merlot or Petit Verdot, but it will still always stay Cabernet Sauvignon. The other types just serve as the muscles supporting it. Surprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon can play this secondary role as well, without any need for support.
— So, you think Cabernet Sauvignon is self-sufficient?
— Monsieur Quarin, what’s your personal attitude to Cabernet Sauvignon?
— My teachers always told me that Cabernet Sauvignon is best thought of as a vertebral column. Yet we can also go beyond this metaphor and remember that Bordeaux wines are typically blends of several grapes, and so we also need to understand why Cabernet Sauvignon is often mixed with Merlot. Basically, it all comes down to productivity. If you can make 5 to 6 thousand liters from one hectare, which is a lot, your Cabernet Sauvignon will be very straightforward, it will lack the «meat» of the vertebral column. It will have, as I call them, square or angular tannins. And producers need to «round» them off. That’s why they add Merlot.
— You classify tannins as square or round?
— Yes, and wines with square tannins will never bring you true joy. What are square tannins? These are the coarse tannins that make your mouth dry. If dryness is all you feel, there’s no room for pleasure. So, when a taster says a wine has silky or rounded tannins, that’s a good thing.
For this reason, many winemakers in Medoc believe that smooth wine can be achieved by just adding Merlot to it. Plus, Merlot ripens before Cabernet Sauvignon, and they harvest it before the start of the rainy season when the weather changes drastically in the second half of September.
People today are willing to pay more for better wine, and chateaus try hard to win over customers’ trust and attention. They intentionally reduce productivity per hectare to increase overall quality. When productivity goes down, Cabernet Sauvignon makes its own transformation. It gains this «meat,» i.e. the proper texture and structure. That’s why when grown in good soil, it can account for 100% of the bottle. Here is an example: up to 1995 in Chateau Margaux, 25% of land was allotted to Merlot, but this number shrunk every year. Now, almost 90% of the land in Chateau Margaux is occupied by Cabernet Sauvignon.
— Monsieur Quarin, when Russians want to find a good wine, they go by price or their friends’ recommendations. What’s a more reliable indicator of quality?
— You have to develop your own taste, there’s really no other way.
— Here’s another question then: after tasting professionally for just 2 or 3 years, can one actually become a good taster or sommelier?
— Sure, if they study for those 2 years with me (laughs).
— So, you think a good expert can train someone in their art over such a short period of time?
— I’m ready to prove it (smiles). The first thing everyone needs to know about Cabernet Sauvignon is that the best wines in Bordeaux can be made only of Cabernet Sauvignon. You should also pay attention to the mouthfeel at the beginning, middle and end of tasting.
Traditionally, Cabernet Sauvignon reveals itself at the end, in the so-called «finale.» The finale is the most positive and valued tasting stage. Based on this principle, if you mix wine from the left bank of Garonne with a large content of Cabernet and wine from the right bank with a prevailing amount of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, it is important to differentiate between the nuances in taste. However, not all expert can tell this difference, as Merlot cultivated in limestone soil often has the same taste in the finale as Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions here.
— Can we say that the most important aspect of Cabernet Sauvignon is that it has a special structure that dates centuries back in history?
— I agree that Cabernet Sauvignon has a structure, but it is first and foremost about the taste. If a wine is structured, it has a distinct finale, a bit more astringent than that of Merlot. Again, wine is one thing, but the ability to work with it, this skill—it’s a whole other side. This might sound obvious and clichéd, but we need more schools for tasters. And it’s important that real tasters work there, not some old retirees who have nothing better to do, so they teach things as they were 50 years ago. The taste of wine and its main principles are in a constant state of flux.
— Does that mean this issue exists in France, too?
— Of course, it’s everywhere. When it comes to my own students, first I introduce them to various kinds of grapes, teach them with young wines. Young wines still have the mark of the grape it was made with. After 10 years, the best wines then become self-sufficient, and you can’t taste the grape in them anymore. One can become a professional taster only after they become proficient in wines 15 to 20 years old. But that’s virtually impossible due to their price.
— What about other varieties that don’t typically age for so long?
— Well, a lot depends on the soil.
— Based on what you’re saying, 80% of tasters should be fired, since they don’t have access to good expensive wine due to its price.
— It’s not that strict, of course. But if a region wants to be famous not only for its wine, but also for its tasters, winemakers should offer up a portion of their best wine for tasting sessions, not just whatever they can spare.
— Tasters in Bordeaux at least have a chance to get good wine, but what might be able to help Russian tasters?
— Sure, it’s hard to get your hands on old wines. For instance, yesterday I tried Chateau de la Vielle 1989, a Cabernet Sauvignon. It was the perfect opportunity to prove that Cabernet Sauvignon is an absolutely magical grape. When it’s handled correctly, especially in Bordeaux, I can feel the tannins in it ripening. They ripen without a high alcohol content, which is great, as such a wine is easy to drink. There were three of us yesterday, and we drank a whole bottle no problem, because the wine was just so smooth.
— Does Cabernet Sauvignon require a special glass?
— No, I don’t think so. I drink all wines, even sparkling wine, from the same type of glass. The most important factor is that it’s tulip-shaped to preserve the aroma.
— What is something that every person who drinks Cabernet Sauvignon should learn to keep in mind?
— Remember that the aroma of Cabernet Sauvignon is unique. When the wine is young, its aroma should be floral. It may have notes of violet, currant, red fruit, but it will always have smoked shades as well, which when combined create a very fresh feeling, a lot less sugary than that of Merlot. At the finale, the nose of Merlot will never be the same as of Cabernet Sauvignon, even if the age is identical. Those who love Cabernet Sauvignon love wine with a long aftertaste and exquisite tannins, and who does not want to drink a wine that’s too potent.
— So, Cabernet Sauvignon demands constant work?
— Yes, absolutely correct. Because you can only reach the best results on a road filled with obstacles. Meanwhile, Merlot is a very easy challenge.
— Monsieur Quarin, I’ve noticed that Cabernet Sauvignon is most loved among deeper, more interesting people. Why is that?
— First, you need to tell me why is it that when you taste Cabernet Sauvignon, the sensation lingers not on the sides, but in the center of the tongue? Why does Cabernet Sauvignon have more tannins than Merlot? It’s because when Cabernet Sauvignon ripens, it only contains 10.5–11.5% of alcohol. What creates that volume in your mouth is the alcohol content. See, when Merlot is ripe, it has about 13% alcohol. You sip Merlot and… everything explodes at the start and never reaches the middle.
Cabernet Sauvignon is ethereal at the start due to its low alcohol content, and reveals its true self only in the finale. Secondly, Cabernet Sauvignon has more acid than Merlot, so the tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon stand out more and closer to the end, even if their content in both wines is the same. Why is Merlot often described as smooth and rounded? Because of its lower acidity. As you can see, it’s a matter of difference between soft men and men of character.
— What do you think about mixing wines?
— It’s a good idea, because it’s the same as playing with your sensations.
— If a wine contains about 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, will it define its overall taste?
— I think that in this proportion you can only recognize Cabernet Sauvignon if it hasn’t ripened sufficiently. Only then does it have the strength to outshine all other tastes. On the other hand, you won’t be able to distinguish a well-ripened Cabernet Sauvignon.
— Then what proportion is enough to distinguish it in a wine?
— At least 50–60%.
— Monsieur Quarin, you’re an active researcher and educator. Jean-Marc Quarin has many incarnations: a taster, critic, teacher. How do you perceive yourself?
— I’m an archaeologist of taste. My paramount interest is in the origin of things. I’m an explorer. My work as a wine critic gives me access to information from tasting sessions. Even though I work as a wine critic, I don’t do it to assign ratings and points, I do it to understand more. I’m an observer. No one else in Bordeaux does it this way.
— In a way, you’re a wine psychologist.
— Indeed, which makes sense, because my first degree is in psychology. And I love sharing this knowledge with others.
— There is an opinion that people under 25–30 cannot evaluate taste accurately due to certain underdeveloped physiological aspects. Is this true?
— Well, age certainly does influence your perception of wine. Younger tasters tend to react to a wine rather than feel it.
— Is it true that people who live in big cities like Paris or Moscow can’t fully understand wine?
— It’s not that simple. I think there are different kinds of wine for people who are stressed out, and for people who are calm. This year, I presented at a conference in Paris for the top management of Apple and Microsoft. Just a small group of top executives. And I said to them: «If you want to feel something, hold the wine in your mouth for at least 10 seconds.» And they followed my advice, although it was hard, because in today’s world even 10 seconds feel like eternity. What can we conclude from this? That Cabernet Sauvignon can be evaluated in 10 seconds. Let it spread to the tip of your tongue, then to the middle part, then wait for the finale.
— I’m convinced that 70% of professional tasters or more don’t understand the audience they’re tasting wine for. The average person simply doesn’t have the right taste buds, they aren’t even able to tell good water from bad. And instead of teaching people how to approach wine, tasters just say something like: «Okay, drink this wine, it’s good.» Tasters thus don’t have any connection with the actual consumers. They’re related most closely to producers and sellers.
— The main issue is that very few people know the real taste of wine—neither tasters nor journalists. If we change our view of wine, if we start treating it as something exceptional, things will be different. Wine tasting is an adventure, a challenge for your senses. When you taste wine, you learn more about it, but you also learn about yourself.
How did I get into wine? For me, wine is history. It’s the most ancient subject of human research. The first cult in the history of humankind was the cult of the Sun. At its base were plants, because they consumed solar energy, so the grape was also part of this cult. This is what’s interesting to study. History helps us understand what we drink, as well as our own nature.
My brother often says: «I don’t like the fact that you’re constantly trying to reinvent the wheel.» But I see it as moving forward. Tasting a new wine for me is like traveling to another country. It’s my little way of discovering new places. All these ratings aren’t my final goal—they’re just a requirement of my job. And believe me, my ratings aren’t just objective, they’re the most objective out there!
Jean-Marc Quarin is an independent wine taster and critic specializing in Bordeaux wines, and author of the annual Independent Buyer’s Guide for Bordeaux Wines. He lives and works in Bordeaux, which allows him to keep a close eye on the wine situation in the region, try new wines when they’re still young, make forecasts, and discover talented winemakers. Monsieur Quarin often says: «The potential of a wine depends on the state of the vineyard.» His integrated approach involves monitoring vineyards and tasting young wines, instead of just simply accepting the samples provided by producers. This is what makes his ratings trustworthy. Throughout his 20 years of experience, Jean-Marc has created his own wine database with 24,000 reviews and evaluations. It’s available in English and French, and can be accessed freely at www.quarin.com.
Gourmet Tourism with Jean-Marc Quarin
Mr. Quarin is also a famous wine guide, and organizes short tours to Bordeaux and its most famous chateaus. They are designed for wine lovers, gourmands, and professionals who want to explore more about French culture, as well as for people interested in the Grand Vin of Bordeaux. Every tour is planned individually, and varies depending on whether the visitors are wine professionals or amateur gourmands.
Quarin’s Taste of Wine School
Jean-Marc Quarin’s school for tasters is a well-balanced intensive course on Bordeaux wines combining valuable insights with practical training. The program includes visits to the most famous and prestigious chateaus of the region, as well as wine tasting sessions and lectures from vineyard owners and managers. All the destinations are handpicked by Jean-Marc himself, based on his recent visits and experiences. All the graduates of the course receive a certificate.
Quotes from the press and world wine experts
Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux: «Jean-Marc Quarin’s wine reviews are based on his sense of style, on his profound knowledge of the best harvests and soils. His reviews are always clear, accurate, and enlightening. Both professionals and amateurs can rely on them as a reference point.»
Le Matin, Swiss newspaper: «Jean-Marc Quarin is the patriarch of Bordeaux wines. His tasting commentaries help wine lovers all across the world find top-quality wines for the right price.»
Paul Pontallier, former General Manager and winemaker at Chateau Margaux: «I always looking forward to reading Jean-Marc’s tasting notes. The acute sense of his palate guarantees the accuracy of his ratings. His choice of epithets always fully captures the varied palette of sensations. Jean-Marc Quarin is our educator and guide to the sensual world of amazing wine.»
Jean-Claude Berrouet, Chateau Petrus: «Over the years, he’s learned everything there is to know about soil. That’s why at tasting sessions, he always has complete information about a wine, and his opinion is always justified. Plus, he has that amazing sensibility that complements and amplifies his talent.»
Jancis Robinson, the royal enologist of Her Majesty Elizabeth II: «Mr. Quarin is a unique source of information about the wines of Bordeaux. He lives here, and can observe first-hand all the changes that happen to wine from month to month.»
Jean-Yves Staffe, oenologist from Belgium: «I believe Jean-Marc Quarin is the leading taster of our generation in France.»
Michael Broadbent, board member of Christie’s, on Jean-Marc Quarin’s Guide: «This is more than just a significant contribution to wine tasting, it is a masterpiece all the same as a bottle of excellent wine.»