Blink or change the radio station and you would almost certainly zoom straight past the two hectares of vines in Graves from which the most distinctive, elusive and expensive wines in Bordeaux are made.
Barolo and tokaji may historically be the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines respectively, but only Liber Pater, named after the Roman god of viticulture, claims the distinction of divine patrimony on its labels. Such a boast could be insufferable, but merely comes across as impish behaviour from enthusiastic and committed owner and vigneron Loïc Pasquet. A man who clearly revels in upsetting apple carts, Pasquet asserts that he alone in Bordeaux is making wines that the originators of the region’s famous classification in 1855 would recognise.
Surrounded by dense forest and no other vines, Liber Pater has the highest vineyard in Bordeaux, with some of the oldest soils, rich in 50-million-year old gravel deposits from the Pyrenees and Massif Central and covered with sandy topsoil blown in from the sea 300,000 years ago, which would have prevented the spread of the phylloxera aphid that devastated Europe’s vineyards in the 1800s.
Pasquet, in dusty work boots and crumpled black jeans, and his wife Alona greet me among the vines, through which a Spanish mule is tilling the soil with a 150-year old plough, the closeness of the rows making it too small for a horse to work. This vine density (20,000 plants per hectare, three to four times the norm) is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his singular approach, with Pasquet’s prime point of difference being the planting of ungrafted, original ancient Bordeaux varieties: Petite Vidure (the old form of Cabernet Sauvignon), Petit Verdot, Castet, Saint Macaire, Carmenere, Pardotte and Tarnay. The latter “was the most important grape in Bordeaux prior to phylloxera, accounting for 70 per cent of planting,” says Pasquet.
While all other Bordeaux vineyards (and the vast majority of Europe’s) are grafted onto American rootstocks, Liber Pater has, since 2015, been planted with 100 per cent ungrafted vines. “Each variety works best on the soils where they were born,” says Pasquet. “Replanting on foreign roots and changing the soil pH means you express the character of the grape but not the terroir.” This is why Pasquet maintains that tasting Liber Pater offers a direct link to the wines of the past.
Having tossed the rule book away, Pasquet’s wines are now classified as mere Vin de Pays (VdP), but this humble designation has done nothing to affect the €4,000 a bottle price tag or diminish the fanatical support of his admirers. Typically, a maximum of 1,200 bottles will be produced annually, although only 500 were produced in 2015, the last vintage to be made until 2018 (which will only be offered in 2021). The whole crop was declassified in four of the previous seven vintages prior to 2015, and replanting and frost meant that no wines were produced in 2016 or 2017. This means bottles have been sold individually and on a strict allocation basis.
As we ascended a rickety stepladder at Pasquet’s unprepossessing and half-finished winery, the contrast to a typical grandiose Bordeaux château was stark. The wines themselves are fascinating – quite distinct from anything else in the region. Both vintages (and a spontaneous blend of the 2018 components) showed seamless harmony: a spicy tension between floral fruit, lithe, saline acidity and long, savoury, herbal tannins. I recently tried a selection of top claret from the 1920s and 1940s (two golden decades for Bordeaux), and it strikes me that Liber Pater tastes how you might imagine a version of a now-venerable wine may have done in its youth. And for offering us that rare opportunity, Pasquet deserves to be congratulated.
Tom Harrow is a fine-wine commentator, consultant and presenter. His Grand Crew Classé is the ultimate invitation-only club for fine-wine enthusiasts, with exclusive access to rare bottles and events around the world. Follow him on Twitter: @winechapUK.