Was a €3000 Graves wine from historic vines always too good to be true? Jane Anson scratches beneath the surface of a case involving the vandalism of rare old vines and a subsequent fraud investigation.
It was already a head-scratcher of a story, even before the news last November that rare vines owned by winery Liber Pater had been destroyed by vandals, and then the bombshell follow-up in January that owner Loïc Pasquet had been found guilty of fraud by a Bordeaux tribunal for a rather confusing assortment of things ranging from not declaring his chaptilisation levels to submitting forged receipts for close to €600,000 in promotional grants.
But before all of this came the idea of a newly-created wine (first vintage 2006) from the humble Graves appellation that sells for upwards of €3000 per bottle. This week, Morrell & Company at Rockefeller Plaza in New York had the 2009 listed for US$4,000, with three bottles in stock (although none sold recently according to the salesman I spoke with). There are margins added along the way, and the wine leaves the château for less than that of course.
Pasquet asked me to keep the exact amount off the record for some reason, but I can tell you that it is among the very highest exit prices of all Bordeaux châteaux, beating even the First Growths in 2010.
At least the price explains how he makes a living, as Liber Pater only produces between 500 and 2,000 bottles a year at best, and not a single one in 2008, 2012 or 2013. But it still leaves the question of how the reputation of this wine rose so high and so fast (to the initiated few at least, as I am pretty sure it wasn’t widely known before its owner made the front pages last month).
Admittedly there is a good story attached. Pasquet has said he wants to ‘recreate the taste of Bordeaux as it was in 1855’, and has been busy reviving long-lost varieties such as castet, mancin, saint macaire and prunelard that he promises will be blended into the wine for the 2016 vintage. But to date the only grapes in this €3,000 AOC Graves are your run-of-the-mill local classics of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Ungrafted organic vines tended through nearly-forgotten techniques of plants pruned low to the ground, tied to individual stakes without wires running between and soils worked only with horses and mules. But still a classic Graves blend.
We had been in contact over the vandalised vines, and I was already planning to visit when the fraud story hit. I wondered if Pasquet would now cancel but he was in fact very happy for our interview to go ahead. We arranged to meet outside a 12th century church in the tiny village of St Michel de Rieufret and I drove down there earlier this week, with two main questions in mind – how did he ever manage to pull off such a spectacular coup in the first place, and was it always too good to be true?
First impressions are mixed. If Pasquet is wanting to prove that the grant money – from France Agrimer, the quasi-governmental agricultural agency – has not been put to misuse, he has chosen almost-too-perfect a car for the job. He pulls up in a tiny, battered Citroen C-Zero that is stuffed to the rafters with papers, various bits of winemaking equipment and what looks like a roll of chicken wire.
And yet he’s immediately engaging, wearing standard issue vineyard gear of old jeans, shirt and scruffy boots with a whiff of mad professor. He clears a space for me in the front seat, and we head off to examine ‘Les Vignes de Scandale’ as he cheerfully calls them – not before informing me that bodies buried in the St Michel de Rieufret cemetery take up to 1,000 years to decompose, so high in acid are the soils.
We climb up to a plateau that sits at a relatively modest 75 metres above sea level, but has a particularly interesting geological feature. Dating from the Quartenary Era (as opposed to the more usual Tertiary of much of Bordeaux) and known as the ‘anticlinal de Bordeaux’, this spot has a 50cm layer of sand and large gravel stones that sits over a good 4.3 metres of pure gravel. These are among the oldest gravels deposited in the region 60 million years ago from the Pyrénées mountains, and the same ones that continued on their journey up to Saint Julien and Pauillac. They also share the highly acidic character that marked out the church cemetery below.
‘My shoes have to be thrown away at the end of every year after working in these soils’, Pasquet tells me, adding that the acidity levels together with the sandy gravel soils are why he can plant ungrafted vines and not worry about the Phylloxera grouse. He says his plants that are regularly tested, and that he has never had a single problem.
I know all this not only because he tells me, but because he gives me a small novel’s worth of independent literature on the subject. And on many other subjects, from 18th century tomes on Bordeaux planting techniques to 19th century lists of local grape varieties. All to prove his assertion that he has done nothing wrong, and that his recent misfortunes are the result of malice. He speaks darkly of a cabal who is threatened by his desire to recreate the taste of wine as it was in 1855 and shows me the – frankly pretty incoherent – assessment of his viticultural and winemaking failures, filed in a report by an agronomic engineer commissioned in 2013 by the Bordeaux customs’ office.
The list of transgressions include using ungrafted vines and planting them at a density of 20,000 per hectare but extends also to questions over his purchase price of the rare vine cuttings, and the gap in the sales price between Liber Pater and his other wine Clos Landiras (a more typical €15 per bottle). The report was delivered in May 2014 but Pasquet says he heard nothing about it until just before Christmas 2015, when the customs office contacted him. He shows me documents dating from 2010 that gave him dispensation to plant at this unusually high density (and I know he is not the only one in Bordeaux to do so) and yet says he was found guilty ‘without any time to prepare my defense’. He is currently appealing.
I call independent commentators to try to get context. Wine merchant Jeffrey Davies is one of the more straight-talking négociants in Bordeaux, and has worked with Liber Pater since the first vintage. He is a staunch defender, and agrees with Pasquet that local jealousy is at the heart of the issue. Next up is the president of the Graves syndicate, Dominique Guignard. He tells me that the syndicate was never given warning of a problem by any official body before the court case was brought in January, which is highly unusual. ‘We write the quality charter that he apparently failed to adhere to,’ Guignard says, ‘but have not been given a copy of the judgement by the court’.
I then go to a consultant for France Agrimer, as the financial side to the case seems to have been confusingly mixed up with the technical transgressions. Pasquet says that to date only one of his grants from France Agrimer has been contested, and that he already paid back in full the sums owing in 2011. One other grant is still under discussion but with no decision reached, and therefore should not, he says, have been taken into account by the tribunal.
The consultant tells me that he can’t comment on a particular case, but that it is exceptionally rare for disputes to end up in court.
At the heart of all of this, of course, is the wine. Once back from the vineyard, we try the 2007 and 2011 Liber Pater. They are extremely strong examples of Graves wines from either vintage, particularly the over-performing 2007, and I am pleasantly surprised by the complexity and freshness. Are they overpriced? Almost certainly, but who in Bordeaux is really in a position to cast the first stone on that particular count?
It was his work on the rare grape varieties where Pasquet was the least forthcoming. He shows me receipts for purchasing buds from the mother plants at a rare vine conservatory in Isle-sur-Tarn, and sends photos of them growing in vitro but I wasn’t able to taste examples (‘they are not ready yet, come back in a month’s time’, he assures). When I ask specifics he brings the conversation back to how he is trying to defend and promote ‘the real taste of wine’, to ‘rail against the standardisation of taste’.
I leave Liber Pater with at least one of my two questions answered. He pulled off the coup through smart winemaking, smart marketing, and a sense of almost religious fervour. Planting ungrafted cabernet and merlot is brave and the results are excellent, although he will stop using merlot once the historical grapes are ready, as it was not a major part of the Bordeaux vineyard in 1855 (‘at least here, in my climat,’ he says, anxious not to cause further offence).
As to whether reclaiming the pre-Phylloxera taste is too good to be true, he asks us to wait to judge until the 2016 vintage (bottled as Vin de France) is on the market. This won’t be until 2018, when a team of 10 tasters will take part in the blending. ‘And together we will try to uncover the taste of Bordeaux as it truly was in 1855’.
It’s an intriguing prospect, and one that I can’t help but hope makes it to the finishing line.