Going Back to My Roots: Putting Liber Pater In Context


How much?

That’s the natural response whenever the unenlightened are enlightened about the cost of a bottle of Liber Pater. It is a wine that almost seems to revel in its exorbitant price tag to the extent that one rightfully asks whether that is its raison d’être? Liber Pater and its recusant architect, Loïc Pasquet, divide opinion like Moses and the Red Sea, yet there is more to Liber Pater than pecuniary value. It is a lightning rod that questions contemporary winemaking and contentiously provides answers. You just have to wade through a lot of guff to get to the core of what it’s about.

This article seeks to separate the marketing and self-mythologizing from Liber Pater’s prosaic entity as mortal “fermented grape juice”. There is no genuflection nor pre-empted skewering. Instead, I endeavor to disentangle the hype and half-truths to create discourse, all without pulling punches. The result is an unintended lengthy article because the more I dug, the more issues it unearthed, and the more intrigued I became. If the wine does not pique your interest, but you are intrigued by present-day viticulture, then read on.

And yes, yes, yes…I will answer the banal question…

How can a bottle of wine be worth €35,000?

The Invitation

Earlier this year, I was invited to a dinner hosted by Birley’s Wine Club at Matteo’s, one of the restaurants inside labyrinthine Annabel’s in Mayfair, where Loïc Pasquet would guide us through three of his wines. It was immediately apparent that this was no run-of-the-mill wine event. Greeted by pre-prandial chatter and a chanteuse belting out the latest hits of 1973 accompanied by a tinkling baby grand, I clocked Pasquet deep in conversation yonder. Would I have a chance to converse directly? More to the point, was he aware of the clear and present danger that a critic who does not mince his words was amidst?

Now that the mise-en-scene is established, a bit of background. A goody-bag handed on departure contained a manga comic that details his story cell-by-cell, a refreshing change from dry monographs even if it does portray its protagonist as a messianic figure battling against the world - informative, if knowingly vainglorious. I won’t delve into the history too much. Essentially, the mid-forties Poitier-born winemaker was bitten by the wine-collecting bug as an adolescent, though instead of pursuing a career in wine, he studied engineering in Dijon. Ennui inevitably festered, and wine became his all-consuming passion. The more he learned, the more Pasquet became skeptical about the globalization of grape varieties and industrialization of wine, convinced that Bordeaux had forsaken its identity when it banned its gallimaufry of indigenous varieties and replanted authorized quasi-monoculture of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Compounding this alleged loss of identity was the whole-scale re-grafting onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock.

“What if we could rediscover the taste of Bordeaux wine?” Pasquet provocatively asks in the aforementioned manga, which begs the question, what exactly have I been tasting all this time?

Loïc Pasquet guides the attendees through three Liber Pater wines.

The History

Pasquet chanced upon an anticline in Landiras within the Graves region, not far from Sauternes. The identity of the vineyard purchased is vague. Writer Jane Anson speculates it might be Domaine de Barrèyre, but that is moot since the vines had essentially been forsaken.

So, what attracted Pasquet to this plot of land?

Apart from its Pyrenean gravel deposits, it was a stratum of sand 20-30cm below the surface that theoretically protects vines from the phylloxera scourge. Nothing new there – just ask any Chilean winemaker. The recalcitrant Pasquet planted two hectares of vines on their original roots, that is to say, without grafting them onto American rootstock. Alongside orthodox Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Carménère, Pasquet cultivated “lost” grape varieties, Petite Vidure (an old clone of Cabernet Sauvignon), Castet, Saint Macaire, Pardotte and Mancin a.k.a. Tarnay. At 20,000 vines per hectare, such planting density obliges Pasquet to tend each vine manually and plow by mule. The wines are fermented using natural yeasts up to a maximum of 21° Celsius with one daily punch-down for two weeks. The original modus operandi was to mature the wine in new barriques; however, after the 2015 vintage, Pasquet substituted these for 400-liter amphorae and eschewed sulfur. Since those aforementioned varieties are unauthorized by the INAO, his wine, christened Liber Pater, was unceremoniously demoted to Vin de France. Even more seriously, since his maiden 2005, Pasquet has been hauled up by the French courts twice for aggravated deception and flouting regulations, though these were overturned on appeal.

Pasquet has publicly disparaged current winemaking techniques in Bordeaux several times. In front of his audience at Matteo’s, Pasquet traduces contemporary Bordeaux wine as “soup” and denounces the practices of the region’s most heralded wines. Unsurprisingly, his goading has created enemies, a couple of whom sabotaged his vineyard at night, cutting down some of the vines and poisoning his nearby well. Though criminality cannot be condoned, the vandalism neatly feeds into Pasquet’s David and Goliath narrative.

Before discussing how the wines tasted, let’s just tackle some issues arising from Liber Pater.

Bordeaux’s Lost Varieties

Winemaking needs disrupters. It needs people like Pasquet to flaunt rules and challenge orthodoxy. Of course, he is not the only person that swam upriver. Think of the first winemakers that began to control yields through green harvesting or forerunners of biodynamics who ignored skepticism and sniggering neighbors. That Pasquet raises questions should be considered a positive.

There has been much ado about his use of indigenous varieties. Before continuing, let me point out that these comprise a very minor percentage of Liber Pater, around 3-5%, and this salient fact is not made clear in many articles that I read, nor even their UK agent’s website that reads: “Owner-winemaker Loïc Pasquet uses rare varieties native to the Graves region on un-grafted rootstock, that were used to make wine in the mid 19th century, before the scourge of phylloxera destroyed vineyards in France and most of Europe.” Upon reading such wording, many a consumer may infer that those “rare varieties” constitute an influential percentage of the blend. Indeed, during Pasquet’s own introduction, he plays on the idea that Liber Pater offers a chance to imbibe a similitude to pre-phylloxera wine when that is not the case. It is analogous to buying a concert ticket because it features an unusual instrument, only to find it inaudible amongst an orchestra.

Nevertheless, this prompted me to read a very useful book by Jean-Baptiste Duquesne called Bordeaux, Une Histoire de Cépages, published in 2022. I wanted to know more about those indigenous varieties. The supposition is that their inclusion ameliorates wine, lest you produce, to use Pasquet’s vernacular, “soup”. Surely in the run-up to the application of INAO rules in 1936, farmers fathomed out which varieties worked best through praxis, trial and error. One could counter argue that they prioritized disease-resistant/high-yielding varieties rather than high-quality ones since livelihoods depended on them. However, reading the rankings of Abbé Bellet (1736), André Jullien (1816), Comte Odart (1845), Auguste Petit-Lafitte (1868) and, of course, early editions of Edouard Féret, quality was undoubtedly an underlying factor that determined which varieties became widely-planted and others marginalized as winemakers winnowed wheat from the chaff. Building wines around dominant varieties optimized towards terroir tends to manifest more focused, characterful and site-specific wines. Those dominant varieties happened to be Cabernet Sauvignon, described in the 1868 edition of Féret as the “king of red varieties” and Merlot.* Pasquet preaches that Bordeaux sacrificed quality when it eschewed indigenous varieties, but perchance farmers just found that they were a bit rubbish? Furthermore, it can be argued that perceptions of surviving pre-phylloxera bottles are skewed because all “negative instances”, to borrow philosopher Francis Bacon’s terminology, were either faulty, sold off in bulk or constituted early-drinking glou-glou. Time filters out the substandard and distorts reality.

*(Malbec and Carmenère were much more prevalent and subsequently fell out of favor after the winter freeze of 1956.)

That said, I sympathize with Pasquet's lamentation about the complete banishment of these lost varieties. There is a strong argument that the INAO’s dictate concerning authorized varieties in the 1930s was draconian, denying winemakers flexibility that unwittingly and ultimately advantaged Bordeaux winemakers in today’s competitive marketing. Indeed, the INAO backtracked and permitted varieties such as Touriga Naçional for up to 10% of regional cuvées to mitigate against global warming. If the varieties used by Pasquet have historical precedent within Bordeaux, surely that confers equal if not more legitimacy than a variety synonymous with the Douro? Then again, would they  effectively mitigate over-ripeness that consents to their legal status?

Did Bordeaux lose a certain je ne sais quoi when it uprooted its own vines to regraft them onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock? No graft is perfect, ineluctably creating a schism between the canopy and its root system. In the past, I have waxed lyrical about pre-phylloxera bottles, not necessarily born in the 19th century since replanting was piecemeal until the Twenties, that often contain ineffable magic and bestowed alchemical time-bending power that defies rationale. These personal encounters give credence to Pasquet’s argument, and of course, counterarguments are hardly feasible since bottles from this bygone era are rarely tasted, prohibitively expensive and subject to variations in provenance. Crucially, it is impossible to compare those bottles with a hypothetical identical wine planted on its original roots, even if winemakers conducted trials to ascertain the impact of American rootstock before sanctioning the complete uprooting of their vineyard.

Aside from the odd transcendental brush with pre-phylloxera bottles, don’t tell me that every subsequent wine from regrafted vines has been inferior. There are the 1947 Vieux-Château-Certan, 1955 La Mission Haut-Brion, 1982 Lafleur… Proclaim such wines prove how Bordeaux went down the tubes and watch credibility drain away. Pasquet is convinced that Bordeaux has become homogenized, though I attribute that more to viticulture and particularly winemaking techniques rather than foreign rootstock. This is where Pasquet’s pugnacious rhetoric alienates his audience. It’s too Manichean for such a nuanced and subjective discussion.

Pasquet cites likeminded winemakers that have adopted similar approaches and formed the Francs de Pied (Ungrafted Vines) Group that includes luminaries such as Egon Müller Thibault Liger-Belair in Burgundy, Alexandre Chartogne-Taillet in Champagne and Filipa Pato in Portugal inter alia. This is vital in terms of growers exchanging views and experiences and also for promoting their cause. Pasquet is the driving force behind their application for official recognition by UNESCO in order to facilitate the preservation of un-grafted vines. A stretch too far? Why should they be given special privileges when others, from Bandol in France to Elgin in South Africa, are threatened by urban sprawl? It relegates grafted vines as somehow being unworthy of protection.

Face-to-Face (If Not Fact-to-Fact)

After the main course of exceptional wagyu, Pasquet joins my table, where I sit with two respected and experienced wine scribes. He is affable and personable, clearly with the gift of the gab, but also prone to misinforming and gaslighting. After pleasantries, I ask why he had just cited Haut-Bailly as an example of a vineyard containing un-grafted vines. Conversant with the estate, having recently composed a standalone article as well as inspecting Haut-Bailly’s ancient vines first-hand, I tell him that he is incorrect. Pasquet refuses to back down and continues to propound it as a statement of fact. There is a kernel of truth. Alcide Bellot des Minière, owner of Haut-Bailly from 1872 and a man who might be considered Pasquet’s antecedent, was a renowned scientist who was vehemently opposed to re-grafting. But Pasquet twists facts to spin an alternative narrative to suit his agenda. The following day, I contacted estate manager Véronique Sanders, who confirmed Minière eventually accepted that the louse could devastate his vines and reluctantly re-grafted.

I find misinformation intermixed with genuine startling truths frustrating. For example, I chanced upon an interview where Pasquet asserts that in 1855 Château d’Issan’s vineyard contained a majority of Mancin, a.k.a. Tarnay.

Was that true?

I call estate manager Augustin Lacaille, who replies: “In 1816, we had a majority of red Mancin, often called at that time ‘le rubis rouge d’Issan’. We also have a document dating from May 2nd of 1847 saying that we changed to Carménère and Merlot as dominant varieties, which means that we had other grape varieties before the 1855 classification.” So again, we are dealing with a half-truth. At the time of classification, d’Issan had pulled out its Mancin, prompting the question: Why? Pasquet would likely argue it was because of productivity, and he might be right. It might equally have been due to inferiority. We just don’t know.

On another point, I cannot understand why Pasquet matured the 2015 in new oak if the aim was to recreate pre-phylloxera wines that were almost certainly raised in old barrels familiar with multiple vintages with a few stems chucked in the mix. He dumped those and switched to amphorae. Unsurprisingly, flicking through old editions of Féret failed to reveal any hand-drawn sketches of cellars full of clay vessels.

And The Wines?

What of the wines themselves? The first of his wines poured is the 2019 Denarius, apparently introduced to offer something more affordable, in this instance, around £700 per bottle. Don’t laugh. It’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, varieties you’ve probably heard of before. It comes from specific parcels of old vine and matured in amphorae. I found this malodourously herbaceous on the nose, inexplicable given the warmth of that vintage. The palate lacks depth and is hollow. My fellow scribe opines that had it appeared in his blind tasting earlier that day, he would have kicked it out as faulty. The 2015 Denarius, a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, is endowed with more fruit concentration on the nose, much more cohesive and without the jarring herbaceousness and under-ripeness. There’s some irony that such an orthodox blend and a smothering of new oak resulted in a pleasurable wine that I would contentedly imbibe if someone else were paying.

So how about the 2015 Liber Pater? It is named after the Roman god of viticulture and, not forgetting, freedom and fertility. (At Liber’s festival, a giant phallus was paraded through fields to the sound of bawdy songs. This is not depicted on its ostentatious bottle design). The label reads: Le Dieu du Vin, Le Vin des Dieux (The God of Wine, The Wine of Gods). I guess that is a bit of one-upmanship over Gruaud Larose, whose motto is identical, apart from referring to mortal kings. At least it is proven that kings exist and they are partial to a bit of wine after a hard day at the office.

This is not my first encounter with this wine. I was served a barrel sample during en primeur in April 2016, and the extant tasting note reminds me that I scored it in the high 80s. Tasting the finished wine, which, to remind readers, was aged in barrel rather than amphorae, corroborates my original review. Let me state that this is an attractive drop of vino. It’s pretty and endowed with appealing purity.

Is it complex?

Not really. I can think of more complex Cru Bourgeois off the top of my head.

Is it distinctive?

Not particularly. The indigenous grape varieties are insufficient to sway this wine in any revolutionary direction, and its fruit profile and ripeness echo more Sonoma than Bordeaux, which is not a pejorative comparison. If I were to taste this wine blind in a tasting with a spectrum of its peers, I’d guess it to be a decent €30 to €40 Bordeaux that I’d happily drink over a decade. That may well be interpreted as damning it with faint praise when we finally factor in the elephant in the room…price.

Never Knowingly Undersold

First, if someone is willing to pay an astronomical sum for your product, why say no? Perhaps there is a liminal point where maximizing income mutates into plain greed, or to quote one fellow attendee, “taking the piss.” You could argue that such risky labor-intensive viticulture mandates high returns, but Pasquet is not the only winemaker taking risks.

Compare its price to numerous other cuvées from vines cultivated on own roots, not least Clos Manou’s Cuvée 1850. In early April, I visited winemaker Stéphane Dief. When I ask about his ex-cellar price vis-à-vis Liber Pater, what I distinctly remember about his reply is not “€62”, but the pause and then he says: “…and 50 centimes.” I ask the reason for the price differential. Theoretically, Dief’s wine can justify a higher price since it comes from invaluable francs de pied vines planted 173 years ago instead of just a few years back. Dief is lost for words. It’s not his question to answer.

Think Dief’s wines are old?

I recently tasted 2013 Vignes Préphylloxériques from Producteurs Plaimont in Gascony, from vines that ampelographers believed were planted in 1820. It is even less expensive.

Every winemaker is at the mercy of the weather. Winemaking is not for the risk-averse. Liber Pater is the paradigm of a Giffen good, inverting the laws of demand so that it rises with price, predicated on the notion that if something is expensive, then it must be indicative of high quality. If someone wants to be seen drinking the self-proclaimed most expensive wine in the world, then its astronomical price tag transmutes into a virtue. Bizarre as that sounds, it’s not uncommon in an age when looks, luxury branding and price manipulation have never been as widespread or influential. That is why on page 113 of the aforementioned manga, a cell replicates the list of the world’s most expensive Bordeaux wines. According to Wine-Searcher, Liber Pater is above Le Pin and Petrus.

Mission accomplished?

Personally, I find this preening vulgar and detracts from the nobler parts of Pasquet’s endeavor. Asking my more affluent oenophile friends whether Liber Pater piques their interest, they laugh and say, “No.” You are fooling yourself if you regard success as price parity the likes of Petrus, whose demand grew organically over decades as consumers began to appreciate its virtues, cognizant of its unerring ability to mature and repay cellaring. We have to wait to see if Liber Pater is endowed with similar longevity. With a tiny bit of experience in that field, I would not put my money on it, but presumably, if you can afford a bottle, then money is no object.

Pitching your newborn wine at a premium has become a more common strategy, not least in the Côte d’Or since price confers status. The reality is that some oenophiles look no further than that. There are enough millionaires that can be easily blindsided by price to guarantee that this strategy works, at least in the short term. When Matteo’s sommelier is asked whether he buys Liber Pater for the restaurant, admittedly to my surprise, he replies that he bought 11 bottles. Then again, why not? You can probably make more profit selling those than a superior Cru Bourgeois nobody has heard of, and Pasquet laughs, perfectly legitimately, all the way to the bank. I can denounce his pricing policy to the cows come home, but I bet his bank balance is healthier than mine.

Winemaker Stéphane Dief posing next to one of his ancient francs de pied.

Final Thoughts

Following the dinner, I reflected upon Liber Pater and, as the article proves, undertook a great deal of research to understand what it is and what it means. Let me break it down.

Firstly, regarding viticulture, the most interesting aspect is the use of autochthonous grape varieties. I don’t subscribe to Pasquet’s view that they are superior to current authorized varieties and could feasibly be inferior. But at least they are different. The brouhaha about their inclusion derives more from their illegitimacy rather than what they might add to the blend. Secondly, the high-density plantings have been around for a number of years – go visit Jean-Pierre Janoueix or Olivier Lamy’s vineyards.

Using un-grafted vines is a much more fascinating proposition, albeit nothing new. I was walking around Bollinger’s parcel of Vieilles Vignes Françaises and TrotteVieilles’s plot of pre-phylloxera Cabernet Franc in Saint-Émilion 20 years ago, or juxtaposing Quinta do Noval’s Naçional against the regular cuvée. Hey, I’ve been to Chile, where according to Joaquin Hildalgo, some 21,000 hectares of vines are planted on their own roots. He further enlightens me that 46,000 hectares are planted in Argentina. Then Hidalgo tells me that he finds quality in South America dictated more by the age of vines instead of whether they are grafted or not. That weakens Pasquet’s argument that un-grafted are superior.

Despite this, I cannot deny that a number of pre-phylloxera Bordeaux and Burgundy bottles have commuted a sense of magic, not just because of their antiquity.

How do we discover what that is if we don’t cultivate vines on their own roots and assess the resulting wines? I concur with Pasquet that banning them outright, as in the case of Germany, or demoting the wine to Vin de Table, is unjust and self-defeating. Nothing is lost by cultivating a few rows. While I harbor criticisms of Pasquet’s pugnacious manner and hubris, at least he has ignited conversation and prompted his peers to experiment. Gonzague Lurton recently told me that he planted a few rows of Castet at Durfort-Vivens to gauge whether it can act as a bulwark against global warming. In the aforementioned conversation with Augustin Lacaille at d’Issan, he revealed that in 2021, they reintroduced some Mancin vines in their Bordeaux Supérieur to ascertain its attributes. The first harvest will be in 2024 though Lacaille did impress upon me that there is no chance of cultivating Mancin within AOC-restricted land. But what if Castets or Mancin does turn out to be a revelation or lead to slower rates of sugar accumulation, potential panaceas to rising temperatures? Chatting to Dief at Clos Manou, he tantalizingly explains that grapes from his francs de pied are consistently an alcoholic degree below others. Would the INAO then consider revising authorized varieties? It’s all speculation.

There will always be a limit to any expansion of un-grafted vines. Phylloxera has lost none of its destructive power since it swept across into Europe. Consequently, large-scale plantings would imperil an entire industry and thousands of livelihoods. Dief tells me that any clay content above 3-4% exposes the vines to risk, which instantaneously limits where francs de pied could be viable. Remember that in the 19th century, vineyard managers could pull out vines with one hand because of the louse. There’s already enough to deal with the specters of global warming, Esca, degeneration and so forth.

Liber Pater is a touch-paper for much-needed debate. Yet Pasquet’s rhetoric has a habit of clouding issues. Facts are distorted. Worst of all, Pasquet cannot resist criticizing fellow winemakers and uses their enmity to portray himself as a victim. Watching one interview, he smirks when discussing price, causing me to question his motives. Ever seen Aubert de Villaine or Christophe Roumier crowing about the market price of their wine? A handful of wines have earned deification. Their quality pertains not just to their sensory virtues but their history and spirituality, wines that can render a raucous room of seasoned oenophiles speechless. I’ve seen that happen. I find no reason to place Liber Pater amongst this select set. The wine has yet to prove itself over time and develop those crucial profound secondary aromas and flavors that elevate wine into a sublime realm.

Following the dinner, I mention Liber Pater to a friend in Bordeaux. They inform me that their family sells fruit to Pasquet. In freeing yourself from AOC rules, essentially, you can source fruit from anywhere you like. Just think of the potential profit margin, knowing that consumers will pay considerable amounts to drink your brand.

The following week a message is passed indirectly from Loïc Pasquet requesting me not to score the wines. Had this been communicated before the event, then I would have heeded the request, or not attended. My advice is: if you don’t want your wines scored, best not to invite a wine critic. Them’s the rules.

Would I like to taste Liber Pater again?

Sure. It’s a fascinating project.

But if it never comes to pass, so be it.

I will just have to drink…less expensive soup.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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