How much is a glimpse of history worth? As far as Loïc Pasquet’s concerned, about €30,000 a bottle, roughly the same as a hospital nurse earns in a year. That’s how much the 2015 vintage of his Liber Pater (“Dieu des vins, vin des dieux”, as it’s characterised on the label) costs per 75cl, which makes this bottle from Bordeaux one of the world’s most expensive wines.
Pasquet, who presented the wine at a masterclass last month at the OenoTrade Tasting held on the 42nd floor of the Leadenhall Building in the City of London, has the smile of a man who knows he’s onto a good thing. He has captivated the wine world, and thereby the exclusive community of those rich enough to spend – on a bottle of wine – a sum that a clinical nurse, or a teacher, earns in a year.
Liber Pater is an extraordinary project in many ways. Pasquet’s mission is to take us back to pre-phylloxera Bordeaux in the tiny, stony corner of the Graves that he occupies. “For the the first time we can taste wine as Napoleon did, from autocthonous varieties on ungrafted vines,” he said.
His two hectares of vines are farmed the old-fashioned way. Planting density is 20,000 vines per hectare, three or even four times the norm, the vines worked by mule and plough. One of his key selling points is his championing of original Bordeaux varieties like Petite Vidure (an old clone of Cabernet Sauvignon), Castet, Saint Macaire, Pardotte and Tarnay, and Carmenere, alongside Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The wine is vinified almost entirely in 400l amphorae which Pasquet brings in from northern Italy. Nineteenth-century vignerons would have vinified in glass-lined concrete tanks or huge oak fermenters, he says. Using amphorae is the nearest he can get to that system.
Then there are the ungrafted vines. The sandy topsoil of much of the Graves is a barrier to the burrowing, root-eating louse phylloxera and Pasquet makes much of the fact that he can plant on original rootstock.
The effect of grafting on the finished wine is a subject of intense scientific debate. Winemakers from Colares in Portugal to Santorini to Chile who possess ungrafted vines are examining in detail whether they can claim their wine is a purer expression of terroir.
Pasquet is outspoken on the subject. “Grafted vines produce wine like soup,” he likes to say. “If you’re on American rootstock you lose all typicity. You get a taste of the vine but that isn’t terroir.” He is prepared to back his claims with serious scientific research – he recently organised a conference with some of the world’s renowned winemakers and growers purely on the subject of grafting and its effects.
Pasquet typically makes about 1,200 bottles of the wine; in 2015 only 550 bottles were made. It is sold internationally, each country getting a tiny allocation. He sells everything he makes.
Any journalist who didn’t approach Liber Pater with extreme scepticism would not be doing their job. What is fascinating about Pasquet is that he is taken very seriously by his peers – and by some of very experienced Bordeaux hands.
Jane Anson – one of the handful of Bordeaux experts who really knows the region’s history – was initially sceptical of his “chutzpah/audacity/confidence”. But having met him and walked his vineyards (he welcomes journalists), she is impressed.
At the ungrafted vines conference, winemakers such as Benjamin Dageneau (son of the late Didier) from the Loire, and Maxine Graillot from the Rhone alongside principals from estates including Weinguït JJ Prüm in the Mosel and Artemis Karamolegos from Santorini, discussed the history of phylloxera and grafting and tasted wine from ungrafted vines around the world.
The key question asked at the conference was, does grafting affect wine quality? The results were fascinating but inconclusive, Anson says, but seeing how seriously Pasquet approaches his winemaking – and the respect he is given – went a long way to changing her mind.
“He’s definitely a difficult character to crack,” she told me in an email. “I must have spent more time trying to understand how much of his schtick is clever marketing and how much real innovation than with any other winemaker in Bordeaux. I think his move towards ageing in amphora rather than barrel is important for actually showing the difference ungrafted vines can make to taste, and will help to convince the doubters. The ungrafted vines conference was also eye-opening – a lot of winemakers that I trust from around the world were there, and all getting a lot out of the exchanges.”
In the end, of course, the wine has to speak for itself. How good is it? it’s very good, subtle, fragrant, vibrant, with fine acidity and excellent tannins. The 2007 (average price £3,350 for 75cl) has a lovely bouquet, agreeably herbal, and an evolved, minerally palate perfumed with violets. The 2015 (£26,750 average for 75cl) has nine varieties and is 100% ungrafted, 80% of it raised in amphora. It’s fresh and fine, with a bouquet of black cherry and good tannic heft. It’s slightly tight and closed at the moment.
So they’re impressive wines. I had a problem, though, with the 2007 – both with wine and the way it was presented at this masterclass. “How long would it age?” someone asked. “Longer than I’m alive,” Pasquet replied with that ever-ready grin. “I would say at least 50 years.” I have to take issue with that: this is an evolved wine. On any serious reckoning, those tannins are not going to get any sweeter. The finish is dry, unmitigated by that wash of juice which signals tannins that are going to soften and sweeten. If I were a sommelier (and if this were any other wine) I would be looking to clear it in the next few years.
The 2015 is a different prospect: time will tell how those robust tannins will age. I asked Tim Triptree MW, international director of Christie’s Wine & Spirits Department, what he thought of the wines (he was at the same tasting). “Impressed but not blown away” was his verdict. “The 2007 was surprisingly evolved” though these were “undoubtedly very good wines; kudos to Loïc for embarking on a project that is shaking up beliefs and pushing boundaries.”
Pasquet is absolutely open about his ambitions, and he has gained the trust of a good swathe of the international wine community. When I introduced myself he instantly gave me his card and said I could visit any time. I’m sure I’ll be treated with the same respect and courtesy he has shown my colleagues – and I’m equally sure he will be as open about his pricing policy as he is about everything else to do with this very singular project.