Can you create an “icon” wine from a standing start?

The fine wine world is being shaken up by newcomers with little experience, or dabbling in unproven terroirs, producing lavish bottlings that command huge sums. Roger Morris looks at the rise of the aspiring icon wines

Words by Roger Morris

Les Champs Libres
Les Champs Libres, a white wine from Bordeaux's Right Bank, is just one example of an aspiring "icon" wine, with humble origins but a hefty price tag

At a wine dinner in Chablis a few years ago, a grower was talking about the difficulty of getting decent prices for his wines. The problem, he said, was that the highest level of Chablis he made was premier cru. “Then why don’t you make grand cru wines?” an innocent voice asked. He replied with a smile: “Because my ancestors decided to grow grapes in the wrong place.”

The grower was Jean-François Bordet, the 13th generation of the family to run Domaine Seguinot-Bordet. He is a highly regarded vigneron and does produce a grand cru – Vaudésir – but it’s technically a negociant wine because he buys the grapes from another grower whose family did put down their roots in the right place.

Like Bordet, thousands of winemakers weren’t born into families owning properties in the sacred terroirs of Europe – or even born into wine families at all. Nevertheless, some optimistic, deep-pocketed owners have ambitious goals of making “iconic” wines recognised as among the world’s greatest – with prices to match. A few achieve that goal by simply buying expensive properties with touted terroirs. But what of those located in places that are off the grid – the terroirs incognito? Is it possible to achieve such a seemingly distant goal from a standing start? And if so, how?

Liber Pater - icon wine
Liber Pater, made by Loïc Pasquet, is now the world's most expensive wine, at €30,000 a bottle

Loïc Pasquet’s Liber Pater vineyard and winery are located in the Graves flatlands, historically well-known for value clarets but not mentioned in the same breath as the renowned châteaux of its Pessac-Léognan AC. And while his vineyard is in Graves, some commentators think Pasquet himself is living in an alternate universe of his own creation. How else could this former automotive engineer with little prior winemaking experience price his wines up to an eye-watering €30,000 a bottle (for the Liber Pater 2015), making them the world’s most expensive wine at release?

The answer? Pasquet claims to have discovered how to recreate Bordeaux wines that taste the way they did before phylloxera. Pasquet purchased the Liber Pater property near the village of Saint-Michel-de-Rieufret in 2004 and began planting ungrafted, untrained vines using ancient grape varieties once popular in Bordeaux. The vineyard is planted to existing varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, ungrafted and certified organic, and wine is made in amphorae not wooden casks. The approach, he maintains, has allowed him to produce a pre-phylloxera taste.

You can make varietal soups, the way everyone in Bordeaux has done, or you can make wines that taste authentic,” Pasquet says.The taste of Bordeaux before phylloxera is not the taste that is in favour today.” While rejecting the existence of such a taste, many wine professionals who have sampled Pasquet’s small production express admiration for its quality and vibrancy – although some have their doubts.

So is Pasquet’s masterplan sustainable? The current vintage – the 2016 Denarius – runs to a mere 1,200 bottles, with a planned annual goal of 5,000. The wine is not yet showing up at auction, and fine wine trading platform Liv-ex reports that Liber Pater is getting nibbles on the exchange but no big bites.

“To put it into context,” said Liv-ex’s Nicola Graham near the end of 2020, “of all the red Bordeaux we’ve traded so far this year, Liber Pater makes up 0.6% by value. Pétrus and Lafite Rothschild account for 6.7% and 11.9% respectively.” Liber Pater itself says that 80% of its wine is sold directly to private collectors, with the remaining 20% to wine investment firms eyeing secondary markets.

Garzon - icon wine
Bodega Garzón is the work of oil billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, who spent a reported $85 million to set up the Uruguayan winery
Garzon vineyards - cult wine

Devising a great backstory and putting an unorthodox plan into action is one route to column inches and extravagant pricing. Other winemakers seeking instant renown look to a variety of alternative approaches: trading on their prior wine-business reputations; choosing well-connected business partners; pioneering uncharted territories; taking advantage of global warming; and, especially, having the business acumen and financial wherewithal to succeed, even if they have never made wine before.

Take Argentinian oil billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, who reportedly spent $85 million to establish Bodega Garzón on untested soil in Uruguay. Or Xavier Rolet, the former CEO of the London Stock Exchange, and his ex-banker wife Nicole, who bought a vineyard in the mountains east of Avignon that became the upscale Chêne Bleu winery.

If either of their terroirs have potential, these owners have the business acumen and resources to exploit it through state-of-the-art winemaking and the wisdom of top wine consultants. Garzon enlisted Alberto Antonini to assist with winemaking, while Chêne Bleu tapped renowned vineyard consultants Claude and Lydia Bourguignon and winemaking guru Zelma Long to help out.

Guinaudeau family
The Guinaudeau family, owner of Pomerol's Château Lafleur, have launched Les Champs Libres, a right-bank white wine

Others set on making great wines off the grid bring their own reputations. Manuel Louzada, who was hired by the SPI group to upgrade Pago de Arínzano in Navarra, had previously headed LVMH ventures in Portugal, Argentina and, most notably, in Spain, at Bodega Numanthia in Toro. “The fact that I had a very solid reputation in the Spanish wine business allowed me to build the credentials and brand awareness of this totally unknown, new project from scratch, but at a slightly faster pace,” says Louzada, who has since moved on to other challenges.

A couple of ambitious wine endeavours on Bordeaux’s Right Bank followed a similar playbook. François Mitjavile achieved star status in St-Emilion at Tertre Roteboeuf, but found St-Emilion land too pricey when he wanted to expand. He chose instead Roc de Cambes in lesser-regarded Côtes de Bourg, but continued to charge St-Emilion prices for his wines. His daughter Nina explained that “because we worked, and still work, at Tertre Rotebouef with passionate people – sommeliers, restaurateurs, retailers, negociants – who look more at the quality than the appellations, and appreciate fine wines, they were open-minded when it came to discovering Roc de Cambes.”

Similarly, the Guinaudeau family, which owns the legendary Château Lafleur in Pomerol, decided a few vintages ago to go against the grain by making a Right Bank white wine, Les Champs Libres, in the little-known commune of Mouillac. Although only classified as a humble Bordeaux Blanc, it quickly generated healthy demand at close to £50 a bottle.

Another motivation for searching out unknown terroirs is global warming. A few years ago, producers in Côte-Rôtie became interested in the Seyssuel region just north of their stronghold on the east bank of the Rhone. Unlike south-east-facing Rôtie, Seyssuel faces slightly north-west, and was not replanted after phylloxera. With global warming, however, it has become attractive for grower expansion, but can only be labelled as simple Côtes du Rhone or Collines Rhodaniennes. One of the best of these Seyssuels is Stéphane Ogier’s L’Ame Soeur, which he rates more highly than some of his Côte-Rôties, but which sells at half the price.

Chêne Bleu
Former London Stock Exchange CEO Xavier Rolet established Chêne Bleu winery near Avignon, France, with his ex-banker wife Nicole

While hardly off-grid, Burgundy’s Côte Chalonnaise, which abuts the famous Côte d’Or, is also finding global warming more of a help than a hindrance. And here you’ll find another ambitious estate led by someone with no previous winemaking track record – Cellier aux Moines in Givry is run by Philippe Pascal, former CEO of negoçiant Barton & Guestier, who also headed Champagne houses and ran LVMH’s watch and jewellery division.

He identifies one simple selling point for any ambitious winemaker working off the beaten path – if the quality is high enough, price and recognition will eventually catch up, even if it does take a few years.

It’s an approach that has worked before. Vega Sicilia was once an unknown winery using French varieties in the wine wilderness of Castilla y Léon. Super-Tuscans were made on the unheralded Bolgheri coast, far away from Montalcino and Chianti Classico. The garagistes were, at first, Bordeaux outcasts. However, as those winegrowers discovered, quality, time, adequate financing – and perhaps a degree of audacity – can eventually win out.