Anthony Barton has been dubbed 'saintly' for his fair-pricing policy at Châteaux Léoville- and Langoa-Barton, writes JOHN STIMPFIG.
Not many Bordelais proprietors have been beatified in print by Robert Parker. So when the almighty US critic dubbed the popular, evergreen Anthony Barton as ‘saintly’ in the Wine Advocate a year or two ago, it inevitably prompted a bit of a stir in Bordeaux, not to mention a bout of gentle ribbing. Jean-Michel Cazes, for instance, took great delight in ringing up Château Léoville-Barton to enquire whether ‘Saint Antoine could come to the phone?’
Joking apart, surely the image of top-end Bordeaux would be in much better shape if more classed-growth owners showed a little more of Barton’s restraint, consistency and fairness when it comes to fixing their en primeur prices. Take his outstanding 2000 Léoville-Barton, whose release price he increased by just 10%. Many of his colleagues were not so moderate. In fact, many were off the other end of the scale.
Like Parker, Barton also has some robust views about Bordeaux’s yo-yo en primeur pricing. ‘The 2000 campaign went crazy. My view is that every time you get these big increases you lose some customers who go elsewhere and never come back.’
Amen to that. But despite these trenchant views, there’s nothing holier than thou about Barton. ‘I’m not a complete philanthropist,’ he points out. ‘If I keep prices at a reasonable level it’s because I’m in the business for the long haul and because I want people to drink my wine.’
In the meantime, Barton has had the latest laugh with the 2001 campaign. Because of his modest increase in 2000, he was able to reduce his 2001 price by just 5%. A number of other châteaux felt obliged to make far larger cuts, taking them back towards 1999 pricing levels. Yet many of the latter failed to sell well through the trade, whereas Léoville-Barton did considerably better. Clearly, sensible and consistent pricing can pay dividends.
Now, of course, all eyes are focusing on the 2002 vintage, which he believes could be another cracker, and possibly even the equal of 2000. ‘I know this will surprise a lot of people, after what was a disappointing summer. But September turned it around. In 50 years, I have never seen such high degrees for Merlot and Cabernet and the tannins are unbelievable. I really think the wines will be fantastic.’ But what about pricing? ‘We’ll have to wait and see,’ he says diplomatically.
Not many people understand the politics and power plays of Bordeaux better than Barton. After all, he has been in the Médoc, an Irishman abroad, for half a century, and has come to love his adopted homeland. And Bordeaux’s wine elite has returned the compliment by showing him genuine respect and affection in equal measure.
After a conventional education on both sides of the Irish sea, a 20-year-old Anthony Barton arrived in Bordeaux in 1951 to work for his Uncle Ronald. Apart from owning the two St-Julien châteaux, Léoville-Barton and Langoa-Barton, which Anthony would ultimately inherit, Ronald Barton helped run négociant business, Barton & Guestier, which was jointly owned by the two families. Was it a golden opportunity? ‘Actually, I wasn’t keen on my choice of career at the time,’ Barton recalls. ‘The wine business was in a terrible state. Right through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the châteaux never made any money.
‘In those days, the properties went on bended knee, desperate for négociants to buy their wine. Now of course, the boot’s usually on the other foot with négociants begging for bigger allocations. Fortunately, the idea of selling the properties never occurred to Uncle Ronald.’
Instead, it was the négociant business that was sold off, acquired by Seagram in 1958. Barton then worked with Seagram for several years before setting up his own négociant business in 1967.
Starting from scratch like this was a bold move, says Barton. ‘By this time I was married with two children and I really had to pull my finger out. “Les Vins Fins Anthony Barton” took about three years to take off.’ Today, it continues to thrive, although now his daughter Lilian is in charge. To his delight, she’s also trebled the turnover since taking over.
Meanwhile, Uncle Ronald was running Anthony’s inheritance. ‘He was a charming, dear old man and a great character – but totally pig-headed. He regarded any innovation as some new fangled idea by “the men in white coats”. At times it was very frustrating.’
And quite a wait. In 1984–85 Barton took over, by which time the châteaux were finally turning a profit. ‘Although there’s been a lot of investment in the properties and the vineyards, we haven’t made any dramatic changes,’ he points out. We’ve bought a de-stemmer, installed temperature control to the existing vats and have more new oak compared with Uncle Ronald’s day. But that’s about it.’
You could argue that Barton is a chip off the old block. For instance, he doesn’t hold with some of the new mantras chanted around Bordeaux, such as green harvesting. He just doesn’t see the logic. ‘Instead, we prune hard in winter which is why we don’t produce more than our neighbours. ‘If you remove half the crop, you are going to produce 65–70% at harvest, which can only be accounted for by extra juice. No more grapes can grow, so the extra can only come from bigger grapes.’
He is also unenthusiastic about much of the new technology available today – though, somewhat grudgingly, he accepts that it has its uses in difficult vintages. ‘However, if you get the right conditions, you don’t need these modern techniques.’
Much to his regret, Barton never had any formal training in oenology. Nor has his regisseur, so they use the services of consultant oenologist Jacques Boissenot.
‘Some people are shocked that we don’t have a full-time winemaker, to which I don’t have an answer. Except that we seem to muddle through and make reasonably good wines. There are no real secrets – we know what we want to achieve.’
He is an unrepentant traditionalist. ‘Trying to imitate the blockbuster style in Bordeaux is a mistake. We have the ability to make wines with finesse, subtlety and elegance.’ One of his favourites is the light, delicate 1985 Léoville-Barton, which was his first vintage in charge.
According to Barton, the difference between the wines of the two châteaux is down to terroir. ‘Langoa is a slightly lighter wine which comes forward faster. It’s also a third growth rather than a second, which is justified. We certainly don’t set out to make a different wine.’
Having hit 70, Barton claims he has semi-retired, although I suspect Lilian may disagree. ‘I work the mornings and afternoons but give myself a long lunch and time to walk the dogs. I’m also keen to get much more involved with the growing side. So I am just as enthusiastic as I ever was.
‘Every year when the vines flower, it still sets my pulse racing, and harvest is the most exciting time of all. So, to be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever really retire because I love it all too much.’