According to Loïc Pasquet, whose Liber Pater Bordeaux wines sell for thousands of euros a bottle, the left bank of the Médoc has it all wrong.
There should be no Merlot, no grafting and no Sauvignon Blanc. Instead, if we want to find the ‘true taste of Bordeaux’, we need to rewind to 1855, when the most famous classification of the region’s châteaux was drawn up.
In those pre-phylloxera days, says Pasquet, 70% of Bordeaux’s vineyards were planted with Tarney-Coulant (aka Mancin), an all-but-forgotten grape variety that made up the entirety of the vineyard of third growth Château d’Issan.
Yes, there was Cabernet Sauvignon, but there was also Castet, Saint-Macaire and – before it was unwittingly exported to Chile – Carmenère.
But, on the left bank at least, no Merlot. ‘You know, before phylloxera, each variety had one type of soil,’ says Pasquet. ‘Merlot, it was for clay; Cabernet Sauvignon was for gravel, Petit Verdot was for damp areas. If you put ungrafted Petit Verdot on the gravel, it died. If you put Cabernet Sauvignon ungrafted in a damp place, it died.’
Then came phylloxera and grafting onto resistant American rootstocks. ‘There was no Merlot before phylloxera on the left bank,’ says Pasquet. ‘On the right bank, yes, but it’s not the same soil.
‘Today they put Merlot on the left bank, in the gravel, but it’s crazy. They have over-ripeness, of course… If you want to get a good write-up from a critic, you have to make wines that are fat and sweet. That’s why they’ve planted Merlot on gravel, to make fat and sweet wines. They’ve sold their souls!’
Pasquet is similarly dismissive of grafting – for the left bank, at least. ‘You have no risk [of phylloxera] because on the left bank you have gravel and sand for 20cm, and you have no phylloxera if you have this type of soil.’
So why graft? ‘Ungrafted, you produce 20 hectolitres per hectare (hl/ha). If you graft, you can produce 80hl/ha. It’s only to improve the quantity.’
Pasquet cites history to support his controversial theories. In 1904, he claims, the owner of Château Margaux said that, since grafting his vines, he had ‘lost the flavour of Margaux’, and so was planning to rip them out again. In 1936, the owner of Haut-Bailly said that keeping his old vines was the best thing he’d ever done.
Putting theory into practice
All of this would be of purely academic interest, but for the fact that Pasquet is putting theory into practice. On his property in the southern Graves – a spot at 80m above sea level which he says was the starting-point for the famous gravels of Pauillac and St-Julien – he has planted the original grape varieties, ungrafted.
The vines are tightly-packed – 20,000 vines per hectare – the land is worked by mule, and the vinification techniques are designed to mimic the 19th century: long macerations, minimal intervention, barrel fermentation and lengthy ageing before release.
And the wines – released in minuscule quantities – sell for €3,000 and more a bottle. In UK retail, the price could reach £5,000 or more.
Pasquet shows a white wine from 2015: 100% Sémillon (‘before, Bordeaux was only Sémillon… we put Sauvignon Blanc in because Sauvignon Blanc is easy to understand young’). It’s a barrel sample; Pasquet might bottle it in 2019.
From absurdly low yields of two tonnes per hectare, it’s voluptuous, exotic, but balanced – more reminiscent of Hunter Valley than Bordeaux.
They’ve started this war, so I’ll finish it
For the red wines, the old varieties are now beginning to figure, with the 2015 release of Liber Pater including small amounts of Tarney-Coulant, Castet and Saint Macaire alongside Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
The rules will make it not a Graves wine, but a humble Vin de France, which clearly rankles.
‘That’s completely mad,’ fumes Pasquet. ‘We’re the ones that have the authentic grape varieties, planted on their own rootstocks in Bordeaux, and we’re the ones forbidden to use the Graves name. It’s unbelievable.’
What do the neighbours think? Pasquet was convicted of breaking the rules of the Graves appellation, but won on appeal last summer; in November 2015, 500 of his old vines were vandalised.
As a riposte, he’s publishing a book later this year, and asking to be admitted as a premier cru classé in the 1855 classification (‘the only one I can enter with these old varieties’) which, he observes wryly, was originally drawn up based on price. ‘If they don’t want to give it to me, I will take them to court,’ he adds. ‘They’ve started this war, so I’ll finish it.’
Other locals have been more supportive, says Pasquet. ‘Some first growths have come to me and asked about the old varieties, and have planted 20,000 vines per hectare there, like me. I can’t tell you that name, but Palmer has planted a big parcel of the old varieties. If they do nothing, they’re dead.’
At a time when the top Bordeaux wines fetch dizzying sums, that seems far-fetched. But Pasquet, it seems, is a patient man.
‘It will take a long time. I predict that in 40 years’ time, they will be saying that the original, ungrafted grape varieties make the best wine. It will take 40 years to explain it to them.’
Loïc Pasquet’s Liber Pater range, including his red, dry white and sweet white wines, are imported into the UK by The Global Wine Trading Company: 020 7596 2769; firstname.lastname@example.org. Prices on request.