Rediscovering the taste of wine from a producer who sells it for £30,000

Loïc Pasquet has been changing the image of Bordeaux wines for the last 20 years. He is loved by some and hated by others. He is the owner of Liber Pater, a small vineyard in Landiras, in the Graves region on the left bank of the Garonne River, minutes away from Château d’Yquem. Liber Pater is the producer of ungrafted wines that come from one of the rare sites that had miraculously escaped the ravages of phylloxera in the 1880s and which Loïc replanted with native Bordeaux varietals without American rootstock. Recently, one of Liber Pater’s vintages became the most expensive wine in the world, fetching the astronomical sum of £30,000 per bottle. This eccentric maverick who talks a mile a minute and peppers his speech with jokes and historic references with equal ease, visited Singapore last June. Julia Sherstyuk interviewed him in between his multiple meetings with local wine aficionados

Julia Sherstyuk: You have a chemical engineering degree and no formal education in winemaking. Yet, today you are producing the most expensive and talked about wine in the world. How did it all begin?

Loïc Pasquet: I discovered a passion for wine quite early. When I was thirteen, I started buying wines from Bordeaux producers, and in five years my collection boasted approximately a thousand bottles. Later, I discovered Burgundies and started a wine-selling business which paid for my studies.

I was an avid reader of books and archive materials which recounted the history of wine and its significance for European civilisation. What piqued my interest the most was the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 which ranked wines on a scale from one to five according to each château’s reputation and the market price of its wines (the Bordeaux equivalent of Burgundy’s crus). In this classification, I came across certain grape varieties that I was unfamiliar with, such as the Manseng de Palus, Tarney-Coulant, Castet, Saint-macaire, and Pardotte.

Further research showed that some of them still existed in the 1960s, but almost completely disappeared by the beginning of the 21st century with the exception of very few survivors in some locations in the Left Bank of the Garonne, which encompasses the Médoc and Graves regions.

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Arrival of the new harvest at the winery and manual sorting of the grapes

What were the reasons for the disappearance of indigenous grape varieties in France?

They are manifold. The first one was the French Revolution that chased Catholic monks out of their monasteries, thus engendering the redistribution of their land and vineyards among peasants and the bourgeoisie. Historically and unequivocally, it was the monks who mastered the ancient art of viticulture in Europe through the centuries. It took some 40 to 50 years for the new owners of the monastery vineyards to learn winemaking techniques and sustain production. The quality of wine was badly affected.

The second disaster came from overseas, in the form of a tiny aphid that lives on and eats the roots of vines: the infamous phylloxera. The insect quickly spread throughout France and other European winemaking regions, leaving entire vineyards destroyed. The lucky exception was the left bank of the Garonne River. Its sandy soil prevented the phylloxera from building the underground tunnels which the insect requires for its survival. After phylloxera, the wine industry in Europe was revived by grafting indigenous grape varieties onto American rootstocks. This led to the loss of the original wine taste.

The third reason that further impoverished the original taste of Bordeaux wines was the intensive agriculture and viticulture which was encouraged in order to to restore France’s economy after World War II. This badly affected the quality of the produce. Hybridised varieties came into play, and these clones resulted in the production of large quantities of wine, increasing the yield from four to a hundred hectolitres per hectare. This also raised sugar levels and increased alcohol content to 12°-14° as compared to 7°-8° earlier. Result? The original taste of Bordeaux wines went down yet another notch.

You are known for your very strong opinions about Robert Parker. Could you elaborate?

Loïc matures his ungrafted wines for 30 months

Robert Parker delivered the final blow to Bordeaux wines. He imposed his American standards on the local producers. These standards are the result of poor taste formed by years of eating sausages and fast food, chock-ablock with fats and sugar. People used to such a diet can appreciate wine only when it is sweet, strong, and “full-bodied”. Such wines have rich fruit concentration but very low acidity — making the wines “fat”, “flabby”, and insipid.

And there you have it — the typical profile of an industrial wine. It’s a wine which is made following a precise recipe which could easily be reproduced anywhere in the world. This recipe does not factor in the typicity of a soil (terroir) nor the importance of right acidity levels which make the wine elegant and well-balanced.

Parker teaches people to appreciate the An industrial wine is made following a precise recipe which does not factor in the typicity of a soil nor the importance of right acidity levels which make the wine elegant and well-balanced. unified, characterless taste of the industrial wine. This is exactly what I’m fighting against. This is the main reason why I decided to start my own vineyard called Liber Pater — to restore the long-lost fine taste of pre-industrial Bordeaux wines.

All Liber Pater wine labels are manually attached

What is the meaning and significance of the name Liber Pater?

Liber Pater means a “free one” or “free father” and refers to the Roman god of wine and fertility who is likened to Bacchus, the equivalent of Dionysus in Greek mythology. In the Roman Empire that comprised, among other territories, the pre-Islamic Middle East, winemaking was well-developed and the cults of wine-related gods were very common. These deities admonished people to respect the environment — a concept that has changed with the advent of monotheistic religions which, by contrast, urged humans to submit the earth to their will. Liber Pater was such an important deity that the Roman emperor Caracalla claimed him to be the patron of his family. The Christian concept of a god’s rebirth can be traced back to the cult of Dionysus who dies and resurrects throughout the year, mirroring the vegetation cycle, similar to a grape that dies when pressed, only to be reborn as wine. Interestingly, the first miracle of Christ was when he turned water into wine. This imagery is deeply embedded within every European today regardless of their creed.

In addition to Bordeaux, I also bought one hectare of vineyards on the Greek island of Naxos planted with 300-year-old vines. For me, it is highly symbolical because of its connection to Dionysus. My plot is located in the exact valley where mythology tells us this god was born! I replanted it with Potamisi, a grape variety indigenous to this region. My first Greek wine will be sold in 2022 under the Tetradrachm brand, which is the name of an antique Greek coin.

The way in which you acquired your first plantings of forgotten cépages makes me think of a spy novel. Are you at liberty to give details?

Since it is no longer illegal, I can tell the whole story. At the French city of Isle-sur-Tarn there is a vines conservatory that preserves ancient grape varieties that were once grown in the region. However, these varieties were no longer eligible for the Bordeaux appellation which allows only Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec for reds, and Semillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle for whites.

I convinced a guy from the conservatory to give me some vines of forgotten varieties. I explained to him that I was trying to bring Bordeaux wines back to their former glory, to their original character of 1855 and earlier. Today, we do not know what pre-phylloxera wines tasted like because grafting onto American rootstocks changed the wines.

Under cover of night, I met with the guy who quickly put bunches of Tarney Coulant, Saint-Macaire and Castets vines into my trunk, with a warning that these cépages were not legal for the Bordeaux appellation. Things are slowly changing in the region, and today the conservatory is authorised to supply these varieties to winemakers who ask for them. But in those days it was different.

So here I was, driving with contraband plants in the trunk of my car. But having the ungrafted vines was not enough for what I had in mind.

What was still missing then?

Knowing the right soil. Jacky Rigaux, a university researcher who wrote several books on the rediscovered taste of Bordeaux wines told me that the ungrafted vines that I had just obtained needed to be replanted on their native soils for which they were historically conditioned. Only then would each grape variety be healthy enough to reach optimal maturity at the right time, which varies from cépage to cépage. This would enhance the quality of wine which would be unique and expressive of the various Bordeaux terroirs, such as dry and cold gravel, lime, clay, or palus (the fertile zone along the Left Bank).

We have succeeded in matching each varietal to the most suitable soil. I am proud of the wine that I make. If for some reason I am not happy with the quality of a wine, I will not market it and will drink it only with family and friends. There were no vintages in the years 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017. I was very happy with the years 2007 and 2010, but 2015 brought me to a completely different level. It took us to a new galaxy of quality.

A bottle of 2010 Liber Pater

My wines are matured only in amphoras. I shun barrels because they add exogenous flavours such as oakiness, vanilla or toast.

The flavour molecules in my wines come from their terroir. For example, I plant my Cabernet Sauvignon in soils rich in iron which will naturally enhance and intensify the taste of the wine. In the same vein, I avoid metal tanks because they are not porous and the wine in them becomes harsh. I vinify all my wines separately and later blend them, in accordance with the Bordeaux tradition. My blends differ every year.

You are known for using animals on your vineyards. What are they and what exactly do they do?

I own a mule who helps us plough the soil. I also borrow several sheep for two to three weeks in winter to graze on the grass around the vines. This year, I will use geese; four of these birds daily consume as much grass as one cow! Goose manure is an additional bonus, as is also the fact the geese do not eat grapes as opposed to chicken and ducks.

Apart from your own, what are the other wines that you enjoy drinking?

I have sold my original wine collection and started a new one that features only ungrafted wines. These days, many European countries are producing them, and of a very high quality at that. I’ve tasted so many ungrafted wines that I simply cannot go back to drinking conventional ones. They all taste corked to me now!

What is your clients’ profile?

They are a handful of people in Europe, the Middle East, China, USA and North Africa. I produce 400 bottles per year and sell only 200, so each client is allocated no more than 24 bottles. My clients are wine collectors and real connoisseurs. They are the ones who understand best what we are trying to achieve. If varietals disappear, the real taste of wine disappears, too. When we save biodiversity, we save culture.