Going Back to My Roots: Putting Liber Pater In Context
BY NEAL MARTIN | JULY 05, 2023
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
And yes, yes, yes…I will answer the banal question…
How can a bottle of wine be worth €35,000?
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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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