No. 1: Fast facts:
Léoville Barton is a 45-hectare, second-growth château in the St. Julien appellation. Cabernet sauvignon accounts for a little over 70 percent of plantings, with merlot and a small number of cabernet franc vines making up the rest.
No. 2: A potted history:
The château's story starts in Ireland with the Barton family. Thomas Barton left the Emerald Isle for France as a trader, fetching up in Bordeaux in 1725. He become an important figure in the wine trade, but didn't buy any vineyards. His grandson, Hugh, purchased Château Langoa in St. Julien in 1821 and later acquired a part of the great Léoville estate, which would become Léoville Barton. The estate remains in the family today under the stewardship of Anthony Barton and his daughter, Lilian.
No. 3. The brave soldier:
In 1924, Ronald Barton, Anthony's uncle, arrived from England to take over the family business. He didn't have an easy time, with Prohibition (1920–33) killing off the U.S. market. He also had to face a succession of poor vintages and, in 1939, the outbreak of World War II.
In 1940, Barton was forced to leave France before the Germans arrived, serving in the British army as an officer with the Free French Forces in North Africa, France and Italy. He was awarded the French Legion d'Honneur, the Croix de Guerre and the Liberation Medal for his services. Returning to France adorned with military honors, he found the vineyards in a dilapidated state and slowly restored them to their former glory.
No. 4. Langoa versus Léoville:
Léoville Barton is a second growth, but is produced at Langoa Barton, a third growth. The wines are made by the same family and on the same premises. This causes plenty of confusion – and attracts a certain amount of snobbery about combining the two operations. Lilian always sets them right.
“I spend a lot of time telling people that Hugh Barton bought Langoa first,” she says. The châteaux share the same varietal mix and encounter similar treatment in the winery. The difference between the two lies in the terroir.
“The vines of Langoa lie to the south of St. Julien, while the Léoville vineyards lie north and west of the château,” explains Lilian. How does that difference manifest itself in the glass? Langoa “potentially gets less sun because it is north-facing."
No. 5. An Irish rose:
Many generations after Thomas Barton started the family's love affair with Bordeaux wine, another Thomas, the son of Anthony and his wife, Eva, was killed in a car accident at the age of 32. In 1988, a rose was named Thomas Barton. Lilian suggests there must have been a wine-loving employee at French-owned rose-growing business Meilland.
No. 6. Pizza, anyone?
Vintage lunch is served in a room complete with two large bread ovens dating back to 1650. It's not known why they were first installed, or how long they were in operation, but they do bear an uncanny likeness to pizza ovens. The similarity has not gone unnoticed by visiting wine lovers. Some have suggested that Anthony Barton should start making pizzas on the property and name the offshoot business "Tony's Pizzas." But Lilian cautions that not only does her father not like to be called Tony, he also doesn't like pizza!
No. 7. The next generation:
Lilian and her husband, Michael, have two children: Melanie, 25, and Damien, 19. Melanie started working for the family firm in January this year after qualifying as an oenologist. Damien is studying business. With both children interested in the wine industry, the Bartons decided it was time to buy another estate where the next generation could cut their teeth.
In August 2011, they purchased Château Mauvesin in nearby Moulis. They have since suffixed Barton to the estate's name. “I was dithering over putting the Barton name on the label," says Lilian, "but the Chinese had already trademarked the name Château Mauvesin so that made my mind up!” The 2012 Mauvesin Barton shows potential: the perfumed nose is rich with florals and black fruits. It has a silky texture and abundant yet fine, powdery tannins.
No. 8. What's ready to drink?:
Joss Fowler, director at Fine & Rare Wines in London, selects the 1995 and 1996 Léoville Barton for current consumption. "For value, the 2001 is [also] my pick for drinking now, at 508 pounds ($772) per case in bond," he says, "and the 2004 – which wants another few years in the cellar – is appealing at 499 pounds ($759)."
For longer-term cellaring, Fowler believes the 2005 offers splendid value at 717 pounds (1,090) per case in bond, although he adds that "this is years away from maturity."
No. 9. If it ain't broke...
The wine cellar is filled with large wooden vats, some dating as far back as 1963. “They are still used as long as they are clean and don't leak too much!” Lilian says. When the rest of the region moved to stainless steel, Léoville stuck to wood.
The Médoc is now returning to more-traditional practices. Many producers are going back to large-format vats and there's a trend towards cone-shaped tanks. Léoville's old tanks are slightly conical, so it seems that the estate is now back at the forefront of winemaking without having to spend money on an update – typically around 15 million euros ($19.5 million).
No. 10. Devoted fans:
Léoville Barton has plenty of loyal customers, who stick to the château for its drinkability combined with cellaring potential and value for money. Chuck Hayward,from JJ Buckley Fine Wines in Oakland, California, explains: "It's a mix of clients who swear by the winery, who have been long-standing fans of what they do. But their recent scores, along with the increased recognition about the quality of St. Julien's wines, have brought new attention to Léoville Barton."
The result, according to Hayward is not such a renewal or revival, but rather "a wave of interest from wine enthusiasts making their first forays into Bordeaux wines."
Prices of the Barton family's wines and available vintages on Wine-Searcher (US$, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):