Anthony Barton: a life in wine

Anthony Barton: a life in wine

By a fortunate coincidence, the second of Dr Bipin Desai’s 2006 wine extravaganzas, once again at Le Taillevent in Paris (see Decanter January 2007), honoured Anthony Barton, Decanter’s 2007 Man of the Year. The UK was represented by MWs Clive Coates, David Peppercorn, Jancis Robinson and Serena Sutcliffe, along with Decanter’s Stephen Brook and myself. After a glass of two of Taillevent Champagne (made by Deutz), we moved to the private dining room whose 18th-century boiseries fittingly recalled Langoa’s classic chartreuse château that was built in 1757 and bought by Hugh Barton in 1821.

Many wine collectors would serve the vintages in chronological order young to old, but Bipin Desai is more intelligent, and the menu showed 22 vintages of Langoa- and Léoville-Barton served in four flights that mixed age and château, the wines gaining in volume to end in triumph with Langoa 1948 and 1961, both from magnum.

Like a true impresario, Desai decides which guest will speak about which wines. The first was Raoul Salama of the Revue du Vin de France, who, noting that, although the French were outnumbered around the table, the first course was cuisses de grenouilles dorées, there were therefore more frog’s legs than any other, hence he would speak in French. Anthony Barton pointed out that the frogs were already legless. The Léovilles were served first: 1985, a fragrant, beautifully balanced classic, was followed by a firm and cedary 1986, as shut-in as the former was open. Then a delightful 1993 – ‘no sun, lots of rain’ – and a chunky 1995 that is just beginning to open up. The Langoa flight began with a taffeta-like 1966 with a lovely nose of faded roses; a typically firm 1986 with a hint of mint; a robust yet smooth 1996, a modern classic; to finish on a rich, meaty 2001, full of blackcurrants and spice.

Clive Coates admitted to ‘being brought up with Langoa’ and that Léoville-Langoa had never had a down period, maintaining their second and third growth rankings beside each other, Léoville being more dignified and masculine, Langoa more fragrant and approachable. François Audouze, famous for his collection of very old vintages, agreed that Langoa possessed its own definition, comparing the two crus to Trimbach’s Clos Ste Hune and Cuvée Frédéric-Emile. The table was split after the first flight between the 1986 and 1985 Léoville, with Barton likening the former to 1952, and the latter to 1953: ‘the 1985 is as good as it has ever been, but the 1986 is young and vibrant – and the older I get, the more I enjoy “young” wines.’

The second flight of Léoville 1950-1982-1989 and Langoa 1955-1982-1989 saw Jancis Robinson commenting: ‘Langoa 1989 sweet and ripe, not typical St-Julien, Léoville 1989 having extra texture, more lift and length, but both are gorgeous; both the 1982s seem vegetal (Barton admitted they were much less good than usual), while the 1950 Léoville takes on weight and richness in the glass.’ I was happy to taste the 1955 again, 37 years after Anthony Barton’s Uncle Ronald pressed some bottles on a group of us as we left for the beach, saying, ‘it’s a perfect wine for a picnic… no sediment’.

The third flight of Léoville 1959-1990-2000-2003 and Langoa 1949-2000 saw us move up yet another gear, but discussion, since all the glasses remained in front of us, went back to 1985/1986. David Peppercorn: ‘1986s are not cuddly’; Anthony Barton: ‘do we make wines to cuddle?’; Bipin Desai: ‘Parker is back-tracking on the 1986s’; Anthony Barton: ‘1985 really is my favourite, the first wine I made wholly myself.’ The table split again on the Léoville 2003, with Brook and Coates fully against, and me probably most in favour, yet there was no divergence on the 2000s, both concentrated yet fragrant, absolute perfection, the Léoville having ‘more magnificence’ for Brook, who thought the 1959 ‘lacked lift’, while I found it rich and hedonistic. For Stephen, Léoville 1990 was ‘a little sauvage and wonderfully fresh’, Coates chipping in with ‘grand vin’. All agreed that Langoa 1949 was a really lovely wine, inspiring gastronomic critic Nicolas de Rabaudy to say, ‘these old wines speak to us and show us their fascinating existence’.

Even Serena Sutcliffe volunteered that, ‘for once I will not be controversial: Léoville and Langoa are quintessential St-Julien: the 2000s, which a child of 10 could appreciate, will continue to give great pleasure long after all of us are dead.’

Then came the magnums of Langoa, the 1961 showing the extraordinary density of the vintage, yet totally upstaged by the fabulously sensuous and exotic 1948, which united the table as the wine of the evening. Thank you, Bipin Desai, for honouring Anthony Barton and his family’s wonderful wines.

What Steven’s Been Drinking This Month

vintage champagne

At the end of the year, I drink up my last bottles of mature Champagne. For a full house on Christmas Day, a jeroboam of Henriot 1985 rose to the occasion, still fresh with majestic flavour and length. Pol Roger Chardonnay 1988 was arrestingly tight, impressive but lean; a magnum of Lanson Gold Label 1989 showed the richness of this vintage parried by Lanson’s natural acidity; Bollinger Grande Année 1990, gold in colour, was over the hill, as was a second bottle, while Pol Roger 1990 is still splendidly creamy and satisfying.

Written by Steven Spurrier