Jean-Marc Quarin is an independent wine critic living in Bordeaux. Below he answers questions from Liv-ex on the 2012 vintage, En Primeur and the Bordeaux market, and his role as a wine critic. His tasting scores for individual wines can now be found on both Liv-ex and Cellar Watch.
On Monday we will be publishing a report by Jean-Marc on back vintages of Margaux and Haut-Brion, in addition to offering a discount on membership to his website, www.quarin.com.
Wine and tasting
You were born in Chateauneuf du Pape and you have a family connection with the Languedoc. So what drew you to Bordeaux rather than the wines of the South?
I was born in the Chateauneuf du Pape Appellation and my grandparents used to be winegrowers in Carcassonne. When my parents moved to Arcachon I studied at the University of Bordeaux. In 1980 I started to learn about the wines of Bordeaux for pleasure, and then I obtained a degree in wine tasting at the Institute of Oenology in Bordeaux.
Comparing 2009 and 2010 will probably engage wine lovers for decades. How do you view the two vintages?
In November 2009 I published an article on the 2009 vintage, and called it “a treat impossible not to swallow”. That’s still true. During the harvest I spent 45 days in the vineyards and in the cellars; the special harvest report I wrote is still available on my website.
The 2009s display a fascinating velvet structure. 2010 is a cooler vintage, with lower PH resulting in a firmer structure. Although full-bodied, the 2010 wines are not as round as the 2009s. The low PH in the 2010s gives a fresh aroma to the finish.
There is currently more pleasure to be had in the 2009s – this will come later for the 2010s. Both are superb vintages but have different styles. Consumers who are used to new world wines and look for instant gratification will like the 2009s better. But there will be classical Bordeaux consumers who can foresee the potential of the 2010s, and they will be ready to wait for them.
You described the 1982s as “disappointing” today – could you elaborate further?
Last October I was disappointed by numerous 1982s. Several wines were diluted with unripe and angular tannins and an acidic finish. Techniques [in winemaking] have very much improved since the 1982 vintage. Improvements in the vineyards and cellars have a direct impact on the quality of the wine. And even wines that were once given high scores can see a decrease in quality over time because our reference on what is high quality has changed. The market and the customers do not always understand this.
Is there one vintage you feel that you, or others, underrated?
I originally underrated the 2001 vintage. But I have appreciated it since then!
In terms of buying a back vintage, where should collectors put their money? Where is the value and quality?
I would suggest magnums (or even bigger bottles) of the 2001.
If you could pick one producer that has impressed you in recent years, who would it be?
Denis Durantou at L’Eglise Clinet.
Which of the Firsts do you think is doing the best job?
In my opinion there are two: Château Margaux and Château Latour.
Outside of Bordeaux, what other wines are exciting you?
Many other wines excite me: red Burgundy (particularly those of Vosne-Romanée), Rieslings from Germany and the Alsace region, all sweet wines that have come from noble rot, vins de paille and white wines from Jura, and new wines from Lebanon.
En Primeur and trading
At what stage in a vintage’s life do you think you can tell its quality? Is En Primeur tasted too early?
You can recognize the potential quality of a vintage (with around 95% accuracy), in December/January following the harvest, after malolactic fermentation has taken place. The En Primeur tastings are not too early. If there were En Primeur sales in December I would encourage people to take the risk of buying wines then, and at a cheaper price, rather than in May.
How representative are tasting samples?
Nobody can be 100% sure. This is the reason why one should taste more than once. As a “long time” professional I do not blindly trust the tastings; I recognize who deals and what is really being done.
Have you managed to taste any of the 2012 wines yet? If so, what do you make of them?
Bordeaux has produced a very heterogeneous vintage. The grapes matured slowly, and if September and October had been sunny the tannins would have been riper. The conditions we had are ones of which the merlot grape takes advantage. Growing the grapes on early, warmer soils would also have helped.
On paper, the two criteria above would put Pomerol wines in first place; but there were exceptions due to directions taken by the properties. Where the yield was low – allowing the grape to successfully mature over a short period of time – there were more chances for the vintage to come out well. Some cabernet francs on the right bank were of very good quality too. But things vary between properties. The press does not currently seem very enthusiastic about the vintage and this may influence consumers.
In Bordeaux there is talk of prices potentially decreasing – this may result in some good bargains for people who want to drink their wines rather than buy it for investment.
What is your view on the current pricing of En Primeur?
Price does not always indicate quality. Some wines are too expensive and others could cost more. In the Guide Quarin des Vins de Bordeaux I point out the outsiders, i.e. wines that go above and beyond what’s expected. Read my comparative tastings between ‘outsiders’ and famous classified growths: outsiders win!
What future do you think En Primeur has?
The status of the primeurs has recently changed. First Growths have stopped referring to the En Primeur price of the previous vintage to calculate the new price, and instead refer to the price of the last vintage distributed, minus 20%. Consumers are victims of the economical “war” between the chateaux and the Place de Bordeaux. The chateaux give higher prices to avoid negociants getting bigger margins. A case in point was the ex-chateaux price of Haut Brion 2005, which was about €100 less than other chateaux. The negoce still re-sold the wine at the same price as the other First Growths, i.e. with more than €100 supplementary margin per bottle.
Futures are of interest when the En Primeur price is lower than the price after the wine has been bottled.
What do you think of the “Place” and the way it operates as a distribution channel for Bordeaux wines?
Merchants have promoted Bordeaux wines, particularly those from the Medoc, all over the world. The Place establishes a wine’s reputation, which makes the price increase. Merchants glorify the wines they’re selling and ignore those chateaux that do not give them their wines to sell or do not allow them to earn any money. As an “amateur” I very much regret that the merchants have so much influence on what is said about wine. They welcome the international press and critics and take them to the properties whose wines they’re selling. As a result, the properties that have tried to sell their wine on their own have had to return to the Place. And only then do they get mentioned and rated by the press.
What role does London play and how is the London trade viewed in Bordeaux?
I think Bordeaux needs the English merchants. They are – and have always been – connected to the whole world.
How healthy is the Bordeaux market at the moment and what does the future hold?
It seems that the wines that have been requested most often over the last few months are those that cost around 35 Euros per bottle. They sell well. There are fewer transactions for those that are more expensive. Everyone complains about price; perhaps the bubble will explode?
Wine writing and criticism
What differentiates you from other critics? What is your philosophy and what makes JMQ unique?
I think I am the only critic who has written on a tasting method called “palate over nose”. My purpose was to inform: to enable people to recognize if a young wine will grow to be bad, good or exceptional. I was presented with the Nadine de Rothschild Wine Book Award for this. In addition to a score on the potential of each wine, I give a so-called “pleasure-score”. This enables people to know which wines can be drunk now, if they don’t want to wait for ten years.
I am also the only critic that lives in the region that I am writing about. Living in Bordeaux places me in a strategic position to hear both official and non-official comments. It is the best way to not be naïve. Over 12 years I have tasted the greatest Bordeaux Wines not only at the chateaux but also in private cellars. I am quite proud to have been the first one to write about discrepancies between bottles, which were later confirmed by investigations and identified by scientists too.
I also developed the concept of ‘outsiders’. The aim of this was to draw attention to winegrowers who are unknown but more involved in their work than most, and who produce great wines for wine lovers.
Finally, I am also the only critic who publishes graphs and charts that show how the quality of each growth has evolved since 1994.
Your website is your main communication tool. What is the story behind its establishment?
I gave up the paper edition in 2009 and switched to the website then. The internet is the best way to find and share information now. My Guide is also available for the iPhone and iPad.
Which other critics do you particularly respect?
I respect them all as long as they are independent.
How is Robert Parker viewed in Bordeaux - by both the trade and the other press/commentators?
Some shed bitter tears while others laugh.
How do you remain “independent” when you are so close to the source? Is living in Bordeaux sometimes a hindrance as well as a help?
Being independent is an attitude of mind. It has nothing to do with living close to the source or far from it. Would any critic before me have dared to write the way that I did on Cos d Estournel, or on Ducru Beaucaillou? Who else would have filmed the hail at Cos d’Estournel in 2011, or filmed Pavie’s vineyard in 2003?
Being so close to the source is a great pleasure for a wine lover and a specialist. From my point of view it’s a necessity.
Please visit the Liv-ex blog on Monday to read Jean-Marc Quarin’s special tasting report on back vintages of Margaux and Haut Brion.