A Visit to Liber Pater Provokes Thoughts about the Meaning of Authenticity

Liber Pater is the most expensive wine in the world, with a release price since 2015 of €30,000 a bottle (up from €5,000 per bottle for the first vintages). Visiting Liber Pater is something like the quest for the holy grail, with a series of obstacles that have to be overcome. Putting Liber Pater into your GPS or Google maps (if you have phone service in the middle of nowhere) will take you to a spot on the main road near a vineyard, but with no habitation in site. Using the address of the lieu-dit takes you up a side road, with another vineyard en route, but no sign that any of the houses along the path have anything to do with Liber Pater. At this point, the only thing to do is to call Loïc Pasquet, who says “are you near the olive trees or the big tree.” As you are basically in a forest, this is difficult to answer. Eventually you find some olive trees (well, really stumps of olive trees) next to one of the vineyards, and Loïc comes to meet you there and explain his design of the vineyard. After that, you follow him back to the cellar, several miles away in Podensac, on the other side of the autoroute. Only those with sufficient perseverance make it through…

Denarius 2019 at dinner

Loïc bought a tiny estate in Landiras in the Graves in 2005 and set out to produce a wine from pre-phylloxera varieties. He planted the vineyard with ungrafted vines at the density of 20,000 /ha (twice the density of the usual high density vineyards in Bordeaux) as free-standing bushes on individual stakes (with vines 80 cm apart in a row and rows 60 cm apart), somewhat like a more organized version of a pre-phylloxera vineyard. The story goes that the wine comes from pre-phylloxera varieties, and reconstitutes the taste of nineteenth century Bordeaux. The major grape is Petite-Vidure, which is an old name for Cabernet Sauvignon. There are small quantities of Petit Verdot and Malbec, and around 2% of the really rare varieties: Tarnay-Coulant (also known as Mancin); Sainte-Macaire (formerly planted in marshes of the Garonne, but rather unproductive); Castets (an old variety of the Right Bank). All of these harvest late, which made them problematic, but is less of an issue in the era of global warming, and they are somewhat susceptible to fungal diseases. The 2015 vintage was the first to come exclusively from ungrafted wines. It fermented in amphorae, and aged 85% in amphorae, 15% in barriques, but from 2018 the wine has been vinified exclusively in amphorae. Going forward, vintages will have higher proportions of the rare varieties as recent plantings come on line. The first vintages were Graves AOP, but from 2015 the wine is labeled as Vin de France, because the rare grape varieties are not allowed in Bordeaux AOPs.

“There’s been a vineyard here for 2000 years,” Loïc says as we walk through the vines. At one time it was in the family of the writer, Montaigne. “We’ve planted it using techniques from the Roman era,” Loïc says, with 5 rows of vines separated from the next 5 rows by an empty row. The vines are planted in small blocks to match varieties with the terroir. The first planting was followed by another five years later. The vineyard up the side road to the lieu-dit is also part of Liber Pater, planted a year ago. Will there be any further plantings? “No, because we planted the best vineyards.” Because the vines are ungrafted, they are relatively small and don’t really show their age. “Grafting increases vigor and sugar production. Our leaves are smaller, it’s more like a Bonsai. The berries are smaller, 50g instead of 150g.” Harvest is between 11.5 and 12.1% potential alcohol.

The back part of the vineyard has more clay, the front part by the road has more gravel, and to the side there’s more of a mix. Long ago it was the bottom of a river coming from the Pyrenees.  “I don’t want to make wine on the basis of varieties,” Loïc says, “with Cabernet Sauvignon for structure, Merlot for fat, and Petit Verdot for spice, instead we need to plant each variety on the soil where it’s born. This is the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy. In Burgundy they have all sorts of soil and one variety. I don’t want to calculate the varieties in the blend, that would be like making Coca Cola, it would be a very bad idea. We need to make a wine to reflect the place and the vintage. The mistake in Bordeaux is to produce a blend based on varieties, not on the terroir. You can produce that blend anywhere in the world. We used to blend plots, but now they blend varieties. We’ve destroyed 8000 years of heritage for 40 years of scores. The difference (in the Liber Pater vineyard) from grafted vineyards is that with grafting you can put any variety on any terroir, but with Franc de Pied (the French term meaning vines planted on their own roots) you have to match the variety to the soil. Harvest is always the first week of October and takes only 3 days. If you match the variety to the soil, everything ripens together, whereas when you graft there can be two weeks difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”

The Liber Pater vineyard in Landiras

Will the vines survive? “We are on the oldest geological zone of Bordeaux which is 50 million years old, whereas the main part of Bordeaux is only 2-4 million years old. We are at 90 meters above sea level. At this geological point, there is a top layer of gravels, and sand below—Aeolian sands which came from the sea with the wind, which are around 20cm deep. This is a natural protection against phylloxera because it cannot dig holes to spread, because the sand falls back when you dig,” Loïc says.

The tiny cellar is filled with amphorae of various sizes. “I only produce a little wine,” Loïc says. There are only around 500 bottles of Liber Pater, and 2,000 bottles of his other cuvée, Denarius, added in 2021. “We do not make a second wine. We make Liber Pater and we make Denarius; they are two wines, but one is not an inferior version of the other,” he says. Denarius is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, fermented and then aged in amphorae for two years. It is less expensive than Liber Pater, under $1,000 per bottle. All aging is now in amphorae with the finish called grès, which literally means sandstone, reflecting the fact that some sand is used when the clay is fired at over 1,200°C.  This makes the material less porous, compared to terra cotta, which is fired at a lower temperature. The result is a reductive environment. “We don’t use barriques because oak can change the taste of the wine, you can adjust it to make more vanillin, or chocolate, like Coca Cola. But me, I want the pure taste of the wine.” Alcoholic fermentation lasts about 5 days in the amphorae, and malolactic fermentation takes place simultaneously, “because we don’t use any sulfur.” After about two weeks maceration, the amphorae are closed, and then remain untouched for 30 months.

Wines aging in amphorae in the Liber Pater cellar

We go up a tricky spiral staircase from the cellar to the tasting room above, where Loïc also has a small collection of old books on viticulture and vinification. This is his reference library to guide production. In fact, at one point during the tasting he tuned in to an auction of old books on wine. Loïc opens a bottle of Denarius 2019, and tasting starts by decanting the wine, actually pouring it vigorously from glass to glass several times, to provide aeration to counter the reductive environment. The wine starts out with impressions of very ripe black fruits, tense on the palate, fresh and a little appley on the finish. It’s a forceful contrast with the sleek, polished impression of modern Bordeaux. It’s constantly changing in the glass, and Loïc gives us the rest of bottle to take back to our hotel to have with dinner. It’s very hard to find any appropriate reference points with which to compare the wine. In terms of modern wine, if you had this blind there would be conflicting messages about origin. The sommelier thought the combination of acidity and maturity pointed to a more northern location, such as the Loire. The moderate alcohol level also might point towards a cooler climate. For me, the intensity of color and the forcefulness of the palate, with fruits tending towards plums on the palate and a sense of white pepper showing on the nose, faintly nutty on the finish, pointed farther south, towards the northern Rhône. Although there is a strong sense of structure, there is no tannic bitterness on the finish. After a while, a sense of tobacco develops on the finish to give impressions resembling Cabernet Franc, and acidity picks up a bit with some herbal impressions. The gravely texture and flavor make the polished modern wines of Bordeaux seem almost eviscerated, if you wanted to pursue the argument. The pattern of changes makes it hard to project future development. It is really sui generis.

The Retarded Development of Cabernet Sauvignon

In Bordeaux it is axiomatic that Cabernet Sauvignon does not make a complete wine in itself but needs to be blended, most typically with Merlot, to fill out the mid palate. In California, opinion is quite polarized: some producers believe that Cabernet Sauvignon makes a complete wine in itself, others that full complexity requires blending. Because opinion is polarized, it’s rare to find a producer in California who makes both a monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend, allowing the effects of blending to be seen directly. So I was delighted on a visit to Mount Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains to discover that for some years they had produced both a monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend. I was especially interested to see whether the relationship seemed the same in this environment as it had in Bordeaux, where I was able to compare some Cabernet Sauvignon that had been bottled alone with the final blend of the chateau (To Blend or Not to Blend).

The Mount Eden winery was originally the Martin Ray winery, and had some old plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon that originated with a selection brought from Margaux around 1900 (it is unclear whether the source was Chateau Margaux or the commune of Margaux). After Martin Ray left in 1970, this became the Mount Eden winery in 1972. There were several rapid changes in winemaker, until Jeffrey Patterson started making the wine in 1981; today he is the majority owner with his wife. The winery is a couple of miles up a dirt track up the mountain (the instructions said it was 2.2 miles, but driving up in sheeting rain earlier this week, it felt much longer), at a height of about 2000 foot, overlooking Santa Clara Valley. The elevation of the vineyards varies over about 400 feet.

We tasted a very interesting comparison between two wines of the 1994 vintage: a Bordeaux-like blend and the 100% Cabernet Old Vine Reserve, which comes from a plot of very old Cabernet that was still on its own roots (it has since been replanted). The vines for the blend were planted in 1980, a mix of 1 acre Cabernet Franc, 1.5 acres Merlot, 11.5 acres Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyards are close by on the same mountain top, and the scion is the same. You see the same relative difference as in Bordeaux: the monovarietal is more precise, tighter, less developed; the blend has lost that precise delineation of fruits, but has gained some roundness, development, and flavor variety.

It seemed to me that the monovarietal Cabernet was more youthful relative to the blend, which was developing a delicious savory edge. This leads me to wonder whether the importance of blending is not so much for the flavor spectrum in young wines, when Cabernet Sauvignon in California (or at least in the warmer sites in Sonoma and in Napa) develops full ripeness, but for aging, when more complexity develops in the blend than in the monovarietal. Do monovarietals suffer retarded development to the point of impeding their evolution?

Tasting Notes

Santa Cruz Mountains, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1994

This wine is approximately 85% Cabernet Sauvignon. Apearance is garnet with some ruby hues still evident. Restrained black fruits on the nose. On the palate the fruits are more rounded and a little more generous than the monovarietal. There’s no trace of herbaceousness; there’s a faint chocolate edge to the tannins showing on the finish. More sense of development, with a very faint trace of sous bois, but less precision than the monovarietal. About to enter its peak phase of maturation. 91 Drink-2020

Santa Cruz Mountains, Cabernet Sauvignon Old Vine Reserve, 1994

Medium garnet color. Very faintly spicy on the nose with perhaps just a touch of cinnamon. Intense ripe black fruits on the palate with a fine grained texture of supporting tannins. There is that taut precision of the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. A touch of black aromatics is cut by a suspicion of herbaceousness. Restrained and taut compared to the blend, which is more generous. 90 Drink-2018.