Well balanced and elegant: these two particular adjectives sit comfortably when used to describe the wines of St Julien. They also happen to fit the softly spoken proprietor of Chateau Langoa, Anthony Barton , every bit as well as his own finely tailored clothes. This Irishman from County Kildare is a master of understatement and knows just how to carry off the business of marketing great claret, in this case, Super Second Chateau Léoville Barton and third growth Chateau Langoa Barton, without ever resorting to the vulgarity of commerce or obvious salesmanship. His manner seems to epitomise that of an English gentleman, even though he is a good Irish Protestant. Direct, scrupulously honest and with an irresistible sense of fun - Anthony Barton has for a long time engendered much respect and even affection from his fellow vignerons, no small achievement within the world of Bordeaux classified growths.
On a clear spring day in the Medoc there is nothing better than to drive south from Pauilllac along the D 2 or ‘route des chateaux', passing the two ‘opposing' Pichons of Baron and Lalande, with the tower of Latour in the left distance. Crossing into the commune of St Julien one immediately arrives at the great roadside wall of Léoville Las Cases surmounted by it's magisterial stone lions, whose unrelenting gaze encompass a massive sweep of noble vines gently running east to the turbid waters of the Gironde estuary. On a sunny day these waters take on a reflective and illusory cobalt hue. One of very few ‘clos' in Bordeaux, this setting seems indicative of Las Cases' epic scale and reputation. At the southern end of this lionised wall nestles the neat and attractive village of St Julien-Beychevelle, it's highly regarded restaurant frequented by vignerons and their clients, along with a daffodil yellow painted wine store adjacent to the small grassy and tree shaded square.
Passing through the village, a fleeting glimpse of the Las Cases chais is offered, together with the final section of the ‘great wall'. Here one first encounters the vines of Léoville Barton - a parcel of Merlot hugging the left side of the road, abutting it's epic Super Second neighbour. Perhaps a further five hundred metres along, like a modest chateau centred hamlet the Barton estate straddles the road, all ochre and honey coloured stone with claret paint, clustered at the foot of a slight incline. On the right, the feminine white shuttered elegance of Chateau Langoa is partially concealed behind the broad expanse of black wrought iron gates. A charming and beautifully proportioned chartreuse of the mid 18th century, Langoa has been home to successive generations of Bartons. On the south side of the chateau sit the chais and cellars assembled around a cobbled and attractive courtyard. A place transformed from tranquillity to controlled hustle and bustle during the vendange. Across the busy D 2 a conglomeration of buildings, large and small, used for assorted wine making activities, office space and staff accommodation. To the rear of both the chateau and courtyard, hidden from view, are the graceful and well proportioned gardens, noted for the beauty of their English roses and manicured lawns. A rare sight in this part of France and as keen gardeners, something which provides Anthony and Eva Barton with enormous pleasure. The combined vineyards of Léoville and Langoa, though not directly adjacent to the chateau, comprise some sixty five hectares in total.
Anthony Barton: "scrupulously honest with an irresistible sense of fun"I first met Anthony Barton in late May 1998, as a direct result of my association with Berry Bros & Rudd in St James's. It was somehow fitting that my introduction be made through such a long established company. Behind the original and elegant lead covered façade of Berry Bros with its dark green livery and arch topped windows, another world of antique wine bottles, inkwells and three piece suits might be glimpsed. A wood lined time capsule of old world courtesy, where gentlemen speak in hushed tones, never resorting to first name familiarity - a world of Trufitt & Hill haircuts, half hunters and lunch at Wiltons. This is where I discovered what truly great wine is all about and it was through my friendship with this famous wine merchant that I finally came to Bordeaux. This is a city whose predominantly 18th century foundations are set firmly in terroir producing wines so legendary that few can fail to find their names familiar. There is nowhere quite like Bordeaux, a friable stone metropolis whose streets bear the names of great wine making dynasties alongside those of Montaigne and Montesquieu. Equally, there is no individual quite like the Irishman who stands firmly at the helm of this great chateau in the small commune of St Julien. During the late spring of 1998 there were perhaps three or four estates which defined my first month long stay in Bordeaux. They seemed to epitomize the greatness of this land of earth, vines and big Atlantic skies. Each in their own individual way offering a standard of enviable excellence which not only command respect but make one truly value wine as something more than a just an alcoholic beverage. One such estate is Chateau Léoville Barton, classified as a second growth in 1855 and for the past twenty years under the astute direction of Anthony Barton. Since the mid nineteen eighties acclaim has been heaped upon this modest self-effacing man. His massive 2000 Léoville Barton perhaps being the culmination of a lifetime spent working in the world of classified Bordeaux.
"Bordeaux: a friable stone metropolis whose streets bear the names of great wine making dynasties alongside those of Montaigne and Montesquieu."
It all began in 1722 when Thomas Barton arrived in France from his native Ireland. Quickly establishing his fortune by shipping fine Bordeaux wines, he soon acquired property including Chateau Le Boscq in the commune of St Estephe. His son William seems to have taken little interest in the wine trade, spending far more time in his native Ireland. With nine children (comprising six sons and three daughters) most of whom achieved success in their own right, it was the fourth son Hugh who would make his mark in the wine business his grandfather had established. Hugh Barton was taken into partnership at an early age and unlike his father was keenly interested in all matters relating to fine wine, he was greatly helped by a Frenchman named Daniel Guestier who at that time was effectively running the Barton family firm. His connections would help this Irish wine dynasty survive the Revolution and enable the business to continue while Protestant Hugh was out of the country. After Napoleon the market for claret soared and during the first two decades of the 19th century Hugh Barton's fortune was doubled and the firm of Barton and Guestier which had been formed in 1802 went from strength to strength. Hugh Barton would now purchase the property known as Chateau Langoa, originally constructed in 1759 and this combined with large portions of the once vast Léoville estate (broken up in the early 19th century) would remain in the Barton family until this day, they are now known as Chateaux Langoa and Léoville Barton respectively.
Ronald Barton, Hugh's great-great grandson, was educated at Eton and inherited the property from his father who was tragically killed in a hunting accident in the 1920's. During the Second World War Ronald joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and fought overseas with the Free French, once again it was a Guestier who helped, on this occasion convincing the occupying German forces that Barton was a ‘neutral' Irishman, thus saving the family estate from confiscation. The chartreuse was however used for billeting officers and troops during the occupation. Ronald returned to the chateau in 1944, with the vineyard in a state of disarray, there was much work to be done. In spite of the great difficulties encountered, the quality of immediate post war vintages was outstanding : 1945, 47, 48, and 49 were all magnificent wines, some are still drinking well today almost sixty years after their birth.
Anthony Barton first visited Bordeaux in 1948. As a boy growing up in 1930,s Ireland, fine wine was simply never mentioned. Surprisingly, Anthony was quite unaware of Bordeaux and the important part fine wine played in his family's fortunes. Though there was a substantial cellar at Straffan estate in County Kildare, whisky and beer were generally preferred by Anthony's father, with wine consumed only during important dinners or special occasions, in fact, little entertaining ever took place. Not until after the war did wine move onto the agenda. During 1944 it was at last considered safe to send Anthony off to Boarding school in England for the remainder of his education, the risk of bombing had all but evaporated. Having attended Irish prep school he would now spend the next four years at Stowe before going up to Jesus College, Cambridge. It seems that even college life offered no real opportunity to taste the occasional glass of fine wine, with the young athletic Anthony favouring a combination of rowing and South African Sherry. There were no wine society dinners and according to Anthony Barton " I couldn't afford decent wine", though his father paid for ‘other' college expenses. All of this was about to change in a quite remarkable and unexpected way. Failing to distinguish himself academically, Anthony Barton faced something of a dilemma: what would his life now be ? Without a degree from Cambridge his job prospects were slim, potential city employers were hardly beating down his door with lucrative job offers and after all, the young Barton was a ‘country lad' at heart. During the vendange of 1948 and while still attending Stowe he made his first trip to Bordeaux to stay with Uncle Ronald. Barely lingering in the city he made his way directly to the Barton estate in the commune of St Julien, where he spent a short holiday during the harvest and acquainted himself with this newly discovered world of fine wine. He describes his first visit to Langoa as "totally depressing - the fabric of the property was crumbling and run down, the curtains in the main chateau were so fragile if touched they fell apart and were full of cobwebs and spiders". The parquet floors seemed remarkably untouched by wartime German jackboots though the vineyards had suffered badly from neglect. This and one subsequent visit in 1949 were to act as Anthony Barton's uninspiring introduction to wine, no wonder he felt disinclined to consider the life of a vigneron as his future career. Uncle Ronald was single, no longer a young man and without an heir. Anthony's older brother would inherit the Irish estate of Straffan and so declined the‘opportunity' of becoming Ronald's eventual successor. The wine industry was struggling and Anthony did not fancy learning a new language in a foreign land, though his alternative options were limited to say the least. At this point Ronald Barton presented Anthony with an ultimatum: "its now or never" he said and reluctantly this young Irishman took "the right decision for the wrong reason". In a slightly cruel twist his elder brother who was due to inherit Straffan learned that his grandfather had accrued enormous debts, not as a result of "mistresses, racehorses and casinos" but simply through living beyond his means. As a consequence the Irish property was sold. Anthony's brother now lives as a farmer in New Zealand.
"you can forget that idea... the vineyard is where we lose money and the negociant office is where we make it"
Bordeaux must have been a very different place in 1950 the year that Anthony Barton came to live in the city. He lodged with a French family in order to improve his language skills and was given a pitifully small allowance, this was grudgingly doled out by Ronald, though subsequently he discovered it was ‘his' money anyway, previously bequeathed by his grandmother. The Barton and Guestier offices at 35 Cours Xavier Arnazon were grim, Dickensian and musty. The young Anthony loathed the atmosphere which he describes as being "lifeless" - though he found the Guestiers to be very friendly and kind, albeit lacking in ambition. Sales and marketing were down to the Barton side of the negociant partnership and this is where Anthony Barton began to hone his skills and sharpen his understanding of how to deal with wine and people. He simply hated his life in the wine capital during these first years and not until his future wife Eva came along did things improve. Eva was acting as au pair to family friends living in town, being Danish she formed part of the ex-pat community living in Bordeaux favoured by Anthony. He found bordelais high society in those days a little hard to bear, thus, he cultivated a circle of people with whom he had something in common. The cellar at Langoa in the early fifties was more varied than Anthony's own cellar now, it contained many amazingly old vintages and during this period Anthony developed an eclectic palate, enjoying great champagnes, Burgundies and classic ‘home grown' Bordeaux. He remembers some magnificent wines from the 1900 vintage in particular. Though Anthony preferred working in the vineyard rather than sitting in a stuffy office, Uncle Ronald explained : "you can forget that idea, the vineyard is where we lose money and the negociant office is where we make it !"
He married Eva in 1955 and the couple moved into Chateau Langoa, though subsequently were compelled to move out when Ronald Barton at the age of sixty suddenly decided to marry - this came as a major shock and severely disrupted family life. At around the same time Seagrams purchased 50% of Barton and Guestier thereby providing a much needed injection of capital, though looking back this was probably a mistake, for now the Bartons were really minority shareholders in the business they had built up. From this point onwards the young Mr & Mrs Barton moved from one rented house to another, during this period Anthony learned nothing of winemaking but everything about the commercial side of the business. Soon, two new Barton's entered the world, firstly a daughter Lillian and then a son, Thomas Barton.
Anthony describes his relationship with Ronald Barton as affectionate, not unlike father and son. They would lunch together every day and spend weekends in one another's company at the chateau. The subject of money seldom arose as Ronald seemed to feel that Anthony and Eva might survive on ‘fresh air'. He would often say "we never pay ourselves salaries", neglecting to remember he was himself a shareholder and was paid a dividend ! Rather reminiscent of the fictional relationship between Charles Ryder and his father in the Waugh classic ‘Brideshead Revisited'. Ronald only spent time at Langoa during weekends, therefore, it seems remarkable that such good wines were made during this period. The regisseur at Langoa played a vital role and though the quality of wine in later vintages (under Anthony Barton) undoubtedly improved, the French staff clearly performed a good job during the 50's, 60's and 70's. The Barton's position at Barton and Guestier had been undermined and Seagrams were now in a dominant position. Anthony was sacked by the company in 1967 and he and Eva were left without any visible means of support. This must have been a difficult time and necessitated rapid action. A company, ‘Les Vins Fins Anthony Barton' was formed almost immediately and the combination of commonsense, determination and a pool of indispensable contacts meant this fledgling business soon took off, albeit, in a somewhat halting fashion. Though Anthony could legitimately sell the wines of all major Bordeaux chateaux, there were two famous exceptions. Years before, a contract had been signed with Barton and Guestier for an exclusivity on Chateaux Langoa and Léoville Barton and meant Anthony was unable to sell the family wines through his new enterprise. This restrictive agreement continued for some ten more years and not until the late nineteen seventies did Anthony Barton reap any real benefit from his family estate. The late seventies were an important time for Lillian Barton, as she now joined the family negociant company and established a solid working relationship with her father. Clearly this helped transform the fortunes of his business which after a relatively slow start now flourishes into the 21st century.
The Handover: After a timely intervention by the Barton's BNP bank manager in 1983, Uncle Ronald, his wife having long since departed for England, was persuaded it made good sense to sign over Chateau Langoa to nephew Anthony. By so doing, enormous financial and taxation problems were avoided. Ronald had never given this idea any real thought but thanks to the astute actions of a third party a calamity was avoided. This ‘donation' of Langoa along with its estates meant the Bartons could at last pay themselves a salary from the chateau. By 1984 Anthony Barton was truly at the helm of his family business and soon after taking over the reins a new regisseur was brought in, this was a big change and one significantly for the better. The bearded Michel Raoult came from nearby Chateau Lagrange and after negotiations over salary, settled into his new role very quickly. The fruits of the new duo's efforts would soon be evident in the 85' and superb 86 vintages. Ronald Barton passed away shortly after this, sadly he never lived to see the great success his nephew would achieve.
At Langoa: Anthony Barton has a special personality: his qualities are many. It is often said he is charming, elegant and a good looking man, even in his mid seventies he remains so. He dresses well : all Jermyn Street style with a touch of continental flare. His generosity of spirit and impeccable manners leave a lasting impression. However, to rely solely on this stream of complimentary adjectives would diminish the man. Once you come to know Anthony Barton and understand his commonsense approach to business and wine making, you realize this is a person, who having struggled through difficult times in his life, knows what really matters. Living amid this 21st century world of luxury lifestyles, German made limousines and the annual circus that is Bordeaux en primeur, it would be too easy to succumb and believe in your own publicity. Here is a fellow, who in typically Irish fashion, takes everything with a respectful ‘grain of salt'. Being an Irishman in Bordeaux does have its advantages, primarily, the ability to identify irony and pomposity while not taking one's self too seriously. Anthony and Eva Barton may now savour the trappings of success but their lives have been touched by great tragedy. With the loss of their only son Thomas Barton in 1991, they were robbed of seeing his youthful potential develop and flourish. Life has not always been easy and as Anthony points out, wealth and affluence came relatively late in life. Though a truly great wine, the commercial success of Léoville Barton only arrived within the last twenty years. This vast improvement in the Barton fortunes parallels the stratospheric rise in demand and prices for classified Bordeaux, as well as the advent of modern wine making techniques and a dedication to only the highest quality. " Nobody could have foreseen the huge change in Bordeaux's economic success" says Anthony Barton. Interest in his Super Second is at an all time high with a winning combination of stunning wines year after year selling at realistic prices. Each vintage gaining excellent reviews from all corners of the wine world, more importantly, the wines are adored by the consumer. The Bordeaux trend of increasing prices each year, irrespective of demand or vintage is not one he endorses. It would be fair to say that a key part of the Barton success is the ‘in house' pricing policy. This chateau proprietor thinks very carefully before upping his price by even one Euro - for one Euro he says equals a further € 400,000 of revenue to the estate. Fairness and consideration for the consumer are of prime importance, while allowing profits for all. Anthony pitches his prices for Léoville well below other classified competitors, thus everyone benefits. There is little Léoville and Langoa unsold, offering a sound endorsement for his marketing policy. An enviable position and one not shared by all classified growths in Bordeaux. He is happy with the profits he makes and considers himself very fortunate to run what is now a successful business. To be fair to other major chateaux competing at the top end, he concedes that some have to try recouping massive investments and therefore elevate their prices to an unrealistic or overly ambitious level. Though he wonders why some of the large companies who buy up the major growths "seem not to have looked at the books beforehand". Big business buying into Bordeaux has undoubtedly influenced pricing in a major way.
Anthony Barton On Wine: In the wines of Langoa and Léoville, Anthony looks for "harmony" and defines the classified growths of St Julien as being well balanced and elegant but with a "little less muscle" than their neighbours. All three ‘Léovilles' in the commune are performing well and most top properties in St Julien are now run by serious minded wine makers. "There are no ‘dud' chateaux in St Julien anymore" and estates "like Lagrange and St Pierre" which previously under performed are approaching the top of their game. Enjoying lighter wines, Anthony Barton bemoans the modern trend of endorsing only ‘blockbusters'. He comments how lighter wines give great pleasure, as do those of supposedly off vintages and is fond of saying : " there is more pleasure out of drinking lighter vintages at the right time, than great vintages at the wrong time" Comparing the recent trend towards massive over extraction and the cult of ‘garagistes' he offers the view that modern wine is similar to modern art, it is there to "shock a bit". Quoting Robert Joseph he believes that many of the garagistes have now gone back to the garage !, implying the cult of so many micro cuvées might be waning. "The ‘regulars' will remain while others come and go".
"there is more pleasure drinking light vintages at the right time than great vintages at the wrong time"
When in conversation with Anthony Barton you are continually reminded of how practical this Irishman is and how difficult it is to disagree with so much commonsense. The trend of drinking classified growths at a more youthful stage does not compromise his winemaking technique, though it seems clear he might prefer the new generation of wine consumers to exercise a little more patience. He feels that due to modern techniques adopted in the vineyard and chais, great wines now have a longer drinking plateau and this is a major change. There are exceptions to the rule that says older vintages were tough and never accessible in their youth, the 1929 Léoville Barton was a classic example, "it was wonderful when young" - conversely, the truly great 45' was most definitely not ! He would like to have made wine overseas, as have many of his good friends in recent years, most notably Eric de Rothschild and Peter Vinding Diers. Alas, the money came too late and never one to borrow, the opportunity would seem to have been missed. He does say however, that a vineyard in Italy or even New Zealand might have been a nice idea. Now in a position to pursue this ambition, he feels he is "too old" ... while amusingly pointing out that his distinguished Pauillac neighbour at Chateau Pichon Lalande, the indomitable Maye-Eliane de Lencquesaing disproves this ‘theory' by commuting on a monthly basis to South Africa at the age of 80.
The Future: So what does the future hold for this St Julien Super Second and the family who own it ? Anthony Barton has made sure he does not revisit the mistakes of his predecessor, having already transferred ownership to his daughter Lillian. The prospects look very bright, the greatest Bordeaux wines will never be short of admirers and those wine aficionado with pockets deep enough to acquire the best vintages. However, Anthony abhors using wine simply as an investment, considering it a dangerous game, he feels there are two "incompatible markets", one for the investor and another for the consumer. In this 150th anniversary year of the 1855 classification he regards the importance of the landmark designation limited ‘merely' to a "document historique" and with good reason. There certainly appears to be a virtual Bordeaux reclassification each and ever year with the continued presence in the market of Robert Parker. Some fifth growths sell at second growth prices and vice versa. So much has changed...not necessarily for the better. Certain powerful wine Gurus applaud ‘big' wines, with over extraction and an almost dense quality, some commentators braver than I suggest that those who follow the views of an individual and his palate, might bear certain similarities to the wines advocated ! This trend has influenced the market greatly. Losing sight of what makes Bordeaux great would be very costly, the individuality of each piece of terroir is tremendously important. Certainly, the present tenant of Chateau Langoa ventures this opinion : "the Australians haven't really believed so much in terroir - they planted whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted... they are now coming around to the idea, which is a pity for us".
After 55 years in the wine business Anthony Barton has witnessed a good deal, he still holds the trade in great affection and comments on how ‘nice' the people are. Travelling to all corners of the globe spreading the gospel of fine wine he has so many amusing anecdotes to relate. Some are quite extraordinary, like the major wine dinner attended at the Four Seasons in Bangkok, unknown to Mr Barton, most of the guests at this ‘serious' wine gathering were actually transvestites ! On a separate occasion in Los Angeles, as guest of honour he had to speak at the end of a very long inebriated dinner, after endless champagne had been served to his fellow guests, followed by all of the First growths and three Seconds he felt entirely disinclined to stand up...the host insisted "come on Anthony you can do it". Taking a final gulp of wine he rose to his feet, the requisite introduction took place and during the few seconds of silence which ensued Anthony began : "it is my unfortunate lot to speak at the end of the dinner, when my ability to speak and your desire to listen are greatly diminished" - at which point someone loudly called out "hear, hear", Anthony replied "hear, hear to which ?"... the heckler promptly retorted "BOTH !" When travelling to promote his wines most experiences are much less raucous and provide a great opportunity to meet the people who simply enjoy and value Léoville and Langoa, it is a vital part of his job, though flying great distances holds little attraction. He clearly believes in the power of good communications and personal contact with the people who buy his wine.
At home in Bordeaux, Lillian Barton ably runs the negociant business from the chateau, she has a warm personality combined with a good sense of fun, a tremendous asset to all concerned within this thriving business. Michel Sartorius, Lillian's sensitive French husband, takes great care of the ‘home' market where clients include many prestigious restaurants including La Tour d'Argent in Paris. When Anthony and Eva Barton are not travelling, the whole family take part in entertaining clients old and new at Chateau Langoa. Luncheon is always a memorable and joyous experience, amid the convivial conversation an impressive array of great vintages are decanted and savoured by palates from across the vinous spectrum. The Barton's generosity is legend, their philosophy seems one of sharing their love of fine wine. The good and the great have crossed the Langoa threshold, yet Anthony reserves the same degree of courtesy for all visitors, a quality which surely harks back to his Irish roots.
The past twenty years must constitute a golden era at Chateau Langoa, with only a few ‘light' vintages. A continuing string of successful grands vins running from the mid 1980's, including the massive Léoville Barton 2000, one of the star wines of a giant Bordeaux vintage, up to the current and impressive wines of 2004. Quite a record for this modest Irish gentleman from County Kildare, who never really wanted to be a wine maker at all. When asked to comment upon his achievements he modestly says : " I think we can say we've had some reasonable success" Defining his proudest moment within a long professional career, Anthony considers the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2003 to be the zenith. Chateau Léoville Barton 1989 was served during the banquet at London's Guildhall, a magnificent occasion attended by most of the world's monarchs and heads of state, it should be added that Barton wines also featured on the menu for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother's 100th birthday celebrations.
Roses and Salmon fishing occupy any spare time, the passion for gardening which Anthony and Eva both share might be gauged when admiring their magnificent gardens at Langoa. The delightful ‘Thomas Barton Rose' created in memory of their beloved son, stands as a poignant reminder to all who know this family, of what might have been.
When asked about ambitions for the future, Anthony Barton answers simply: to see his grandchildren Damien and Mélanie flourish and to "grow old gracefully"...not unlike his wonderfully elegant wines.