Man Of The Year: Anthony Barton

  • Tuesday 13 March 2007

Sense and Sensibility. He is renowned throughout the world as one of Bordeaux’s most high profile ambassadors. He is recognised for integrity, fair prices and archetypal St-Juliens. Anthony Barton, Decanter’s 2007 Man of the Year, tells Stephen Brook why he refuses to overcharge for his wines

Sense and Sensibility. He is renowned throughout the world as one of Bordeaux’s most high profile ambassadors. He is recognised for integrity, fair prices and archetypal St-Juliens. Anthony Barton, Decanter’s 2007 Man of the Year, tells Stephen Brook why he refuses to overcharge for his wines.

Anthony Barton has lived in Bordeaux for 55 years, but he is no Frenchman. Indeed, he is an Irish country gentleman transplanted to St-Julien in the Médoc, where for over 20 years he has owned and run Châteaux Léoville-Barton and its neighbour Langoa-Barton. Perhaps to his own surprise, he won the respect of the international wine trade when he refused, unlike almost everyone else in Bordeaux, to increase his opening prices in 1997. This was a mediocre vintage – a lightweight year that delivered wines to drink fairly young – but there was keen demand for the wines, or so négociants claimed. Prices soared. Barton felt uncomfortable raising the prices for wines he knew were modest. And customers who bought other, more extravagantly priced wines often found their value plummeted.

Anthony Barton has never had time for the greed that characterises so much of the Bordeaux scene, so his wines have always offered exceptional value. The great 2000 Léoville-Barton trickled onto the British en primeur market at around £350 per case, but before long it was trading at three times that price. Of course it was the négociants and importers rather than the Bartons who were making all that profit. It is too tempting to ask Barton whether his wines are now underpriced, with the wine trade’s middlemen profiting at his expense.

‘I don’t consider our wines underpriced. I don’t want to play this game of always competing with my neighbours. That’s all about vanity and doesn’t help the image of Bordeaux. If Léoville-Barton seems cheaper than many other top second growths, it doesn’t bother me. We’re making a very good living as it is. How many new cars can anyone buy after each vintage?

‘The last thing I want to do is kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. I don’t find it galling that négociants sometimes make a good profit from our wines. After all, there are many top Bordeaux wines out there from which they make no money – usually because allocations are being cut, and the merchants need to service their regular clients and avoid putting too high a margin on what is already an expensive case of wine. These days some wines are so severely allocated that many importers can only obtain a saleable quantity by spending days chasing up cases here and there on the Bordeaux marketplace. For them it’s become a pain in the neck acquiring stocks of certain wines their clients are after. In contrast, they can buy our wines relatively easily at a fair price and can make a profit from them. And the consumer does not have to pay through the nose. So everybody’s happy. One of the many problems in Bordeaux is that too many people associate price with prestige, so some proprietors push for the highest possible release price. That’s not a game I want to play.’

He looks with amazement at recent transactions in the Médoc, such as the purchase of Montrose by the super-rich Bouygues family. He is not opposed to such investments in the region – it has been a standard practice since the 17th century – but knows that prices are now so high that it is impossible to see how these estates can ever be run on a profitable basis. He can only assume that the new owners either don’t care, or are gambling on eventually obtaining what would now seem an unrealistic price for the wine.

Family fortunes

Barton has a very long perspective on the Bordeaux wine scene, as he has been part of it for almost 60 years, following in the footsteps of numerous ancestors. Thomas Barton landed here in 1722, and the family prospered as négociants. Hugh Barton bought the two estates Anthony now runs: Langoa in 1821 and Léoville in 1826. In 1835 Hugh built a spacious pile called Straffan House at his estate in County Kildare. Twenty years later Léoville was classified as a second growth, Langoa as a third.

Anthony grew up at Straffan, but the property was sold after World War II and is now a hotel and golf course. He first came to Bordeaux in 1948 to work the harvest under the eye of his uncle Ronald Barton. Then, after two years at Cambridge studying modern languages, the young scion was dispatched to Bordeaux.

‘I didn’t work at the estates. I asked Uncle Ronald if I could manage the vineyards, but he wouldn’t hear of it. The wine estates weren’t making money – no Bordeaux properties were profitable in the 1950s and 1960s – and I had to work for our négociant firm, Barton & Guestier. It was the only way I was going to get a salary. What’s more, nobody lived at the château, which was run down, and only used at weekends and during the harvest. Whenever I turned up, I was told not to touch the curtains, as Ronald was convinced one good tug would bring them crashing down.’

Today all that has changed, and the elegant 18th-century château, about 1km north of Beychevelle, is one of the few great houses of the Médoc permanently inhabited by its owners. Here Barton and his Danish wife, Eva, entertain guests for lunch in the beautifully furnished rooms, while the estate management is undertaken from the side wings, where his beloved dogs roam through the offices. Most visitors assume the mansion is Léoville-Barton, but not so. Léoville-Barton, being just one third of the original Léoville property, had no house of its own, unlike Langoa-Barton, to which the actual château belongs.

In the late 1950s Seagram’s bought a 50% share in Barton & Guestier, where Barton had become export director. Gradually it increased its holding and in 1967 he left to set up his own négociant business, Vins Fins Anthony Barton, which is today run by his daughter, Liliane.

‘I wasn’t allowed to handle the two Bartons, which were sold through Barton & Guestier. So I had to make money by selling, for example, off-dry white to the Finnish monopoly. It was fairly nasty stuff, but they couldn’t get enough of it. Eventually the agreement with Barton & Guestier came to an end, and after that I could sell our wines as well, which helped considerably.

‘Uncle Ronald was reluctant to hand over the properties to me, and resisted any attempts to make improvements. Our old destemmer-crusher was a ghastly machine, which really churned up the grapes. When I suggested buying a modern replacement, he wouldn’t hear of it. He’d say that if it had been good enough for great vintages such as 1945 and 1947, it was good enough still. But he was also terrified of going into debt, so he wouldn’t borrow money to finance much-needed investments. Uncle Ronald produced some of our greatest post-war vintages. Unlike many neighbours, he had the foresight not to replant the neglected vineyards after the war, so we had a lot of old vines. As for the destemmer-crusher, I simply announced one day that it had broken down irretrievably, and went out and bought a new one.’

Taking over

In 1984 Ronald Barton, aged 82, was at last ready to retire. Anthony made some badly needed investments – he installed temperature control, bought more new barrels – but there were no radical changes. At the Barton properties, as elsewhere in the Médoc, there is no ‘winemaker’: there is a cellarmaster, and the vastly experienced Jacques Boissenot acts as a consultant. Who, I wonder, makes the crucial decisions, such as when to harvest, how long to macerate, and how to compose the final blends?

‘It’s a joint decision,’ Barton explains. ‘We already know the style of wine we want to make, so we adapt the vinification and maceration to the quality of the fruit. And of course Boissenot comes into his own at the blending stage, though he’s a frequent visitor during and just after the harvest. He understands that we’re not trying to make a huge wine here – it’s not our style.’

The consistency of the wines suggests this is a set-up that works, and it stems from a deep familiarity with the vineyards. Nor is Barton entranced by hi-tech aids such as concentrators, though he admits to having conducted trials with such innovations. So the Barton wines remain traditional, in that the vineyard and cellar teams know what they are doing and what they are aiming for, and have no need to tweak a winning formula.

Nor is Anthony Barton a great believer in green-harvesting. ‘But that doesn’t mean we go for high yields. If you compare our average yields with those of other St Julien properties, you’ll find they’re much the same: about 50hl/ha. One American importer scoffed when he heard that, and told me the wine would be much better at half that yield. Since that would also reduce my production by 50%, I asked if he would mind if I doubled my price to make up for it. Of course he’d mind, he said. But there’s no way I would follow his advice anyway. Claret has never been a super-concentrated wine, except in years such as 1947, or 2003 or 2005, when nature gave us exceptionally low yields.’

The face of Bordeaux

The Bartons, even if they wanted to buy property in Bordeaux, could not afford to do so. ‘I’d like to have tried something in South Africa, but it’s only in recent years that our financial position would have made that possible, and now it’s rather too late.’

Anthony Barton is now 76, and though his face has the lined quality of the habitual outdoorsman, he seems younger than his years. He looks back on Uncle Ronald’s heyday in the 1940s as a great period for the two properties, and he has, over the past two decades, returned the Barton wines to that level of quality. Barton is a guardian of all that’s best in Bordeaux, putting himself at the service of his wines rather than the other way round. I have sometimes encountered Anthony and Eva Barton at airports, weary after a long flight back from Singapore or the United States, where their activity has been as much ambassadorial as promotional. Ever accessible, ever courteous, he always conveys the notion of Bordeaux as a wine of integrity and distinction.

He remains true to his ideal of fine claret as a wine that is balanced, digestible, classic, a wine without excess. It’s a style admired and loved by everyone who wants a wine to give those primary pleasures of fruit, succulence, and sustaining tannins. It would be an exaggeration to see Barton as a consumer’s champion, but he always seems conscious of the final destination of any good wine: an appreciative dinner table. Nor does he want his wines, for all their distinction, to be the preserve of the rich alone. They remain affordable and accessible. Behind his relaxed and amused manner is a dogged integrity, and a quiet determination that fine Bordeaux must remain true to itself.

Barton At A Glance

Born: 1930, Ireland

Education: Stowe and Cambridge

Married: wife Eva and two children

Career in wine: Barton & Guestier, Bordeaux, 1951–67; founded Vins Fins Anthony Barton, 1967; inherited Léoville-Barton and Langoa-Barton, 1984

Properties: Château Langoa-Barton, 17ha (hectares). Second wine: Lady Langoa.

Château Léoville-Barton, 54ha. Second wine: La Réserve Léoville-Barton

Tributes To Anthony Barton

Jean-Michel Cazes, Château Lynch-Bages: ’It is often said that the true “vigneron” puts his very personality into the wines he makes… This is particularly true of Anthony Barton. Both the man and his wines possess elegance, authenticity, breed, generosity. To this he adds a touch of common sense and a dose of humour. He is loyal to his friends and respectful of his customers. Our Médoc owes much to Anthony and all the Bartons in our history.’

Johnny Goedhuis, MD, Goedhuis & Co: ‘Anthony – wit, raconteur, winemaker, generous host and great friend – has been part of my life since 1975. My 30 years in the trade would have been immeasurably poorer if I hadn’t met him.

‘Anthony has not only made great wines over the last 25 years but has priced them at a level that one can afford to drink. He remains a voice of sanity in the increasingly expensive world of the Médoc.’

Jancis Robinson MW, wine author: ‘I can´t think of a wine producer in France who is better company. Affable, decorative, informative, extremely helpful and –

most important – always amusing. Oh, and his wines are pretty good too.’

Christopher Berry Green, chairman Berry Bros & Rudd: ‘My association and friendship with Anthony, Eva and Liliane began 40 years ago in London (although I had stayed at Château Langoa with Uncle Ronald some years before), and I have lost track of the very many occasions when members and guests of our own company have enjoyed the good friendship and generous hospitality of the Barton family. Anthony is admired and respected the world over for his seemingly tireless ability to foster enjoyment and understanding of fine claret, and there is nobody in the Bordeaux trade whose knowledge and integrity I hold in greater respect. I heartily applaud Anthony’s selection as Decanter Man of the Year 2007.’

Jean Hugel, Hugel & Fils: ‘Anthony Barton is a true gentleman of the wine world, who is as universally respected and admired as his wines, and I am privileged to count him among my close friends. Our friendship dates back to the 1960s, when I was understudying my father and Anthony was understudying his uncle Ronald, at our annual joint tastings in London, Southport and Edinburgh. Ever since then, Château Léoville-Barton has had pride of place on my table, and I am honoured to see our yellow label on Anthony’s table in St-Julien... On behalf of all the Hugel family, I send my warmest congratulations to Anthony.’

Adam Brett Smith, Corney & Barrow: ‘Anthony’s Anglo-Irish humour, subtle and simple, often leaves his friends uncertain as to whether they are the hunter or the prey. He has a lightness of touch and a self-deprecating quality that masks a profound humanity and business acumen.

‘What he, Eva and Liliane have achieved at Langoa- and Léoville-Barton has passed into legend. I am simply proud to know him as both a mentor and friend.’

Decanter Hall Of Fame: The Former Men And Women Of The Year

2006Marcel GuigalRhône

2005Ernst LoosenMosel

2004Brian CroserAdelaide Hills

2003Jean-Michel CazesBordeaux

2002Miguel TorresPenedès

2001Jean-Claude Rouzaud

Champagne

2000Paul DraperCalifornia

1999Jancis Robinson MWLondon

1998Angelo GajaPiedmont

1997Len Evans, OBE AOAustralia

1996Georg RiedelAustria

1995Hugh JohnsonLondon

1994May-Eliane de Lencquesaing

Bordeaux

1993Michael BroadbentLondon

1992André TchelistcheffCalifornia

1991José Ignacio DomecqJerez

1990Prof Emile PeynaudBordeaux

1989Robert MondaviCalifornia

1988Max SchubertAustralia

1987Alexis LichineBordeaux

1986Marchese Piero Antinori

Florence

1985Laura and Corinne Mentzelopoulos

Bordeaux

1984Serge HocharLebanon

The Great Langoa-Bartons Of The Last 20 Years

Most of these wines were tasted in December 2006.

2003 HHH Opaque in colour, discreetly oaky on the nose. Dense, extracted and chewy, giving little pleasure now and too atypical to assess its potential. More length than many 2003s and a grippy finish. 2012–16.

2002 HHHH Pure blackcurranty fruit on the nose and palate, and lovely toasty oak. A stylish wine from an underrated vintage, with concentration and exceptional length. 2014–25.

2001 HHHH More perfumed and open than 2000. Medium-bodied yet has fine acidity and grip, combining delicacy with structure and length. A sleeper that will reward patience. 2012–25.

2000 HHHHH Black-cherry fruit on the nose, which is closing up. Very concentrated, rich and succulent, formidable now but has splendid fruit. Seems slightly low in acidity, but this is built to last. 2015–25.

1998 HHHH Very deep colour, and a bold black-fruits nose with integrated oak. A classic style, with firm tannins but no greenness. Ample fruit but too dense to give much pleasure now. 2012–22.

1996 HHHHH Fine blackcurranty fruit on the nose, with lead pencil tones. Sweet and graceful on the palate, structured but not overtly robust, with a long, peppery, persistent finish. 2010–25.

1995 HHHH Dense and closed on the nose, though scented with sweet oak. Tannic and muscular, with unusual grip for Langoa, and true to the vintage. Good length promises a long future. 2010–25.

1989 HHHHH Muted black cherry aromas, with a hint of liquorice. Fine concentration and ample succulence, not weightily structured, yet remarkably fresh and lively, with exceptional length. Up to 2020.

1988 HHH The nose has elegance and charm, often in short supply in this vintage. It’s a concentrated wine but somewhat lean and lacking in succulence. But balanced and stylish.

Up to 2012.

1986 HHHH Unevolved colour, and discreet cedary aromas. Typically 1986 in its assertiveness and spice, but it’s not tough and has fine acidity and length. Up to 2015.

And Leoville-Barton Highlights

2004 HHHH Stylish blackcurrant aromas typical of this property at its best. Rich, supple, concentrated, with lovely fruit, spiciness and vigour. Fine balance and length. Classic. 2016–30.

2003 HHH Atypically plummy nose. Rich but baked and tough, and lacks St-Julien typicity. Modest acidity raises question marks over its ageability. 2010–16.

2001 HHHH Spicy blackcurrant aromas. Rounded and lush with masses of fruit, balanced by firm tannins. A bit of a bruiser now, and clearly needs time. 2018–28.

2000 HHHHH Black cherries and blackcurrant. Very rich and concentrated, magnificent in its power and opulence, complex and deeply structured. Very long and hard to fault. 2018–30.

1998 HHHH Closed nose. Rich and svelte, with firm but ripe tannins, chewy and perhaps lacks some overt fruitiness. Solid, robust, but little flair. 2015–25.

1996 HHHHH Level-pegging with 1995. Aromatically more open, with plenty of blackcurrant and toasty oak. Fresh, spicy, vigorous, long and precise. More stylish than 1995 but less powerful. 2012–25.

1995 HHHHH Inexpressive but lively nose, with hints of mint and currants. Bright, fresh and lively, concentrated and firmly tannic and thus still very youthful. But long and vigorous. 2015–30.

1990 HHHHH Sweet, leafy, cedary nose – perfect St-Julien. Lush, juicy, with masses of upfront fruit, but stylish, concentrated and fresh. Will slug it out with the 1989 over the next two decades. 2012–25.

1989 HHHHH Sweet and sumptuous on the nose. Ripe, intense, with more grip than Langoa. Tight and needs time, but should outgun Langoa in the long term – though more accessible today. 2010–25.

1986 HHHHH The antithesis of 1985: full-bodied, tannic and assertive, virile and highly concentrated. A classic style with a great future, but doesn’t have the poise and charm of 1985. 2015–25.

1985 HHHHH Delicate blackcurrant aromas, showing enormous charm. Medium-bodied but concentrated and still fresh, with impeccable balance and a sprightly finish. Very long. Up to 2018.

1982 HHHH Lush blackberry and blackcurrant fruit on the nose. Voluptuous palate, but also spicy and lively with no signs of overripeness. Charging confidently into the future. Up to 2018.

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