On Monday I met with Anthony Barton, owner of Château Léoville Barton, a Second Growth 1855 Classification in Saint-Julien Beychevelle. This was certainly quite a treat, considering that the Barton family holds the record for the longest standing family-owned Château in Bordeaux. The family’s presence in Bordeaux dates back to 1821 when Hugh Barton, of Irish decent, purchased Château Langoa. Soon there after, in 1826, Mr. Barton purchased Château Léoville Barton, which was originally part of the Léoville estate, including Las Cases, Poyferré, and Barton. Thus began a tradition of excellence in wine, spanning nearly 200 years.
Anthony Barton was born in 1930 in Kildare, Ireland. He studied French and Latin at Cambridge and in 1951 he moved to France to live. During this period, up through the 60s, Mr. Barton worked heavily on the commercial trade portion of the business; however, not directly on the production end. In fact he never had his sights on taking over the family business. The post World War II period was rough on the wine industry, and frankly Mr. Barton was considering alternative, non-wine-related ventures. However, destiny would seal Anthony Barton’s fate within the Léoville Barton wine dynasty. Anthony’s uncle, Ronald Barton did not bare any children and in 1983, Anthony Barton inherited the estate from his uncle Ronald. Anthony Barton has been managing the operations ever since, further refining the winemaking processes and producing some of the best wine in all of Bordeaux. I asked Mr. Barton of which vintage he was most fond and he responded that the 1985 was the most special to him. 1985 was the first real vintage produced completely under his direction and he considers it to be top quality, despite not receiving all the lime light like in the case of the ’82, ’90, ’00, and ’03.
Château Léoville Barton owns 48 hectares of vines, composed of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, and 8% Cabernet Franc. The average age of the vines is around 30 years; however, Anthony Barton stressed that he does not like highlighting this figure. He explained that the true age of the vines is quite difficult to calculate, considering the nature of the plantings and progressive replantings, as well as the wide range of the age of the vines throughout the various parcels. Of course the same can be said for all wine estates. Regarding the yields, which average out at around 50 hectoliters per hectare, Mr. Barton also has a very unique perspective. Most top estates flaunt there low yields, between 30 and 40 hectoliters per hectare, as a direct reference to quality. Once when asked by a wine critic why Léoville Barton doesn’t lower its yields to the levels of some of its competitors, Mr. Barton responded, asking the individual if they would be interested in paying double for his wine. Of course Mr. Barton believes that wine is a product of good taste and pleasure; however, it is also a business and this aspect cannot be ignored. He believes that as long as a controlled yield between 40 and 50 hectoliters is maintained, world-class quality wine can always be produced.
Once in the winery the grapes go through a 2 to 3 week fermentation / maceration, with daily pump overs, in 200 hectoliter oak vats. The malolactic fermentation is carried out in the same oak vats during a 2 to 3 week period. Regarding the usage of oak, Mr. Barton has always been considered a traditionalist throughout Bordeaux, and when the push began to switch to stainless steel because of temperature control issues, Mr. Barton rationalized that if we can put a man on the moon, then we can surely find a way to control the temperature in oak. Of course he was right and today there are stainless steel coils and pumps that control the temperature just as accurately in oak as in stainless steel. After the malolactic fermentation is completed, the wine is transferred to oak barrels (50 to 60% new oak) where aging will proceed for approximately 20 months. When all is said and done the annual production at Léoville Barton is around 300,000 bottles for the first label and around 60,000 bottles for the second label, Réserve de Léoville Barton.
Throughout the two hours I spent with Anthony Barton we talked more casually than formally about wine and the industry. It was quite an opportunity to have such a candid exchange of personal wine stories and ideas with someone who is so much my superior. Mr. Barton shared with me an email from a prospect in China that is interested in distributing Léoville Barton to the Chinese market. Mr. Barton elaborated that although their presence currently is quite minimal, he sees a lot of potential and is very conscience and optimistic about what the future holds for wine sales in Asia.
Regarding wine making philosophy, Mr. Barton reflected on his past (and present) as a traditionalist, stating that he’s never fully bought into the idea of 100% new oak, like so many of his peers. Nor does he follow the bandwagon that the best wine comes from the ripest grapes. He mentioned that in some past vintages Léoville Barton harvested as early as a few weeks before the neighboring top chateaux; however, he was convinced then and is still convinced today that they chose the proper date for the ideal expression of their wine.
Regarding the 2008 vintage, Mr. Barton wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as the majority of the other proprietors I’ve visited. Nonetheless, he thinks the 2008 is a solid vintage, characterizing it as well-balanced and showing good fruits. However, he doesn’t think it will age that long compared to prior top vintages. We discussed the issue of aging a little further and Mr. Barton stressed that he does not believe that a top quality wine must necessarily be a wine that ages. Some wines, based on the vintage or other related circumstances, simply do not lend themselves to as much aging as others. However, in an ideal vintage, Mr. Barton finds the best expression of Léoville Barton after 20 years of aging.
Regarding the legacy of the Barton family, it appears to be in tact. Mr. Barton’s daughter, Lilian, is very involved in the family business, heading up the negociant business, ‘Les Vins Fins Anthony Barton’. Mr. Barton noted that she’s successfully increased the overall operations by three-fold since she took over. Lilian is in line as heiress to the estate and furthermore her two children are both studying agriculture and oenology at the university in Bordeaux.
Here’s what Mr. Barton and I tasted … He chose the 1999 and the 2001 because he feels they are the best, underappreciated wines of his recent vintages …
2008 Château Langoa
Tasting Notes: (in barrel) Fresh, bright red and black fruits on the nose, with aromas of cedar and minerality. Good acidity in the mouth. A fresh medium-bodied feel with nice tannins, although slightly astringent. There are flavors of raspberry, plums, leather, and a subtle hint of dark chocolate.
Rating: 14-16/20 (WS 89-92)
2008 Château Léoville Barton
Tasting Notes: A very ripe, big, fleshy nose, expressing a sweet elegance and notes of plums and blackberries. Rich and powerful with great balance in the mouth, showing strong tannins and a smooth and velvety feel that cuts through this full-bodied wine. Flavors of blackberries linger throughout.
Rating: 16-18/20 (WS 90-93)
2001 Château Langoa
Tasting Notes: A very complex and compelling bouquet of cedar, leather, and earth, reminiscent of an old abandoned barn or an antique shop. Very supple yet juicy in the mouth, the texture is that of velvet. This wine is very well balanced, and delicious flavors of berries, plums and cassis linger throughout the palate.
Rating: 17/20 (WS 92)
Price: $30 @ Wine Spectator, upon release
1999 Château Léoville Barton
Tasting Notes: An equally complex and compelling bouquet as the Langoa 2001, showing notes of graphite, earth, mineral, and cassis. A true expression of terroir. In the mouth this wine is like swimming in a pool of silk and velvet. There is a medium body, sweet tannins and flavors of bright, sweet raspberries. The finish is long and pleasant. Apparently this wine really evolved nicely since the Wine Spectator rating, dating back to 2004.
Rating: 17/20 (WS 89)
Price: $42 USD @ Wine Spectator, auction price
Acknowledgments: The photo of Anthony Barton at the beginning of this article is courtesy of David S. Eley, www.agoodnose.com