Anthony Barton was both a remarkable human being and a bridge between two very separate eras. In 1951, when he arrived in Bordeaux, aged 21, to help his uncle Ronald at Châteaux Langoa and Léoville Barton, the buildings and landscapes of the Médoc may have born a physical resemblance to the way they look today. But behind the scenes all was very different.
First, there was no money. Even in the 1930s, Bordeaux estates struggled to pay their way, and the Second World War had only made matters worse. As he struggled to revive the business, Ronald Barton openly talked of selling up the estate that had been in the family since 1824. It is hard to estimate the value of Léoville Barton (a second growth) or Langoa Barton (a third) in the early 1950s, but, in a 1963 interview (with WineMine) Ronald Barton acknowledged that after the war, a fifth growth chateau could have been purchased for £15,000. At the time, that was the equivalent of $60,000 – or around $755,000 today, allowing for inflation.
Prices rose in the 1950s following short harvests and growing demand, as Ronald Barton, acknowledged. In 1963, a Briton wanting to buy the 1959 vintage of Léoville Barton in 1963, would have paid around £1 or $4. Or $50 in 2022 money. Leoville Poyferre was similarly priced, while Leoville-Las Cases would have been around 10% more expensive. At the time, Barton thought these prices high, and likely to fall.
As it is today, trading was in the hands of negociants, one of which, Barton & Guestier, had been founded by another Barton ancestor, 'French Tom' Barton, in 1722. These enterprises, too, struggled to make sufficient profit and in 1954 half of Barton & Guestier was sold to the Canadian spirits giant, Seagram, which subsequently acquired the remainder of the shares.
Second, despite occasional great examples from the rare years when the climate was kind, the wines were also primitively made and often less than impressive. Fortunately, bottlers in London and Brussels were ready to do a little remedial work on them when required. Modern wine drinkers would struggle to recognise the style of the wines Ronald Barton produced – at least in their youth. He was no fan of Bordeaux that was ready to drink too early. Thanks to his use of a high proportion of old Cabernet Sauvignon vines, he made “better wine, more robust and with better staying power.” Others, he said, could make “’pretty-pretty’ wines that can be drunk almost as soon as they are in bottles and must be drunk within a few years”. In 1963, he was still drinking the occasional bottle of wine from the 1860s or 1870s.
In the middle of the 20th century, wine was also essentially a European business and the British reasonably believed that trading in ‘fine’ examples, like Bordeaux and port was their prerogative, just as it was for tea. The idea of them having to compete with merchants in New York, let alone Hong Kong, was unthinkable.
And, of course, there were no score-awarding critics of the kind we know today. Newspapers had anonymous ‘wine correspondents’ who, under headlines such as “Candidates that Deserve to Rank with the Noble 62” suggested to readers looking for “excellent wine at an excellent price”, that “The man to consult is the merchant who regularly visits Bordeaux and has up-to-date information of individual chateaux”.
For most of Anthony Barton’s first three decades in Bordeaux, little of this picture would have changed. Then came the 1982 vintage whose public ennoblement by Robert Parker in 1983 coincided with Barton himself finally taking the reins at Langoa and Léoville Barton.
Later that decade, as Parker’s readers developed a taste for Bordeaux, so for a while during their economic boom, did the Japanese who bought chateaux as well as bottles. Then, following the bursting of that bubble, came the insurance companies bearing their cheque books.
Despite this growing interest from outsiders, the Médoc remained a region that not only lacked wine tourism; it was short of resident chateau-owners. Anthony Barton and his Danish wife Eva were among the few chateau owners who lived in their estates. Most preferred Bordeaux or Paris. When the insurance giant, AXA bought Pichon-Baron in 1987, the building was uninhabited and some of its walls still carried graffiti written by German soldiers nearly 50 years earlier.
I cannot claim to have known Anthony well, but we had frequent chats over the years since the 1980s. Unlike some of his neighbours who visibly adapted their welcome to the fatness of their visitors’ wallets, he treated everyone with the same gentlemanly courtesy. Many presumed him to be English or ‘British’, but those who appreciate the difference could recognise the Irishness in his DNA that lay behind the humour and frank irreverence that set him apart from the general tone of the Médoc.
He was, what I’d call a teaser who was always ready to see through the bullshit. When, for example, Robert Parker helped to ignite an obsession with wine having to be unfiltered, Barton told me that “there are only two kinds of Bordeaux. The ones that are filtered and the ones that claim to be unfiltered”. There were many, many other comments that I took care not to record in my notebooks.
Crucially, he was responsible for hugely improving the quality of his estates’ wines, without resorting to some of the technology that was adopted at Las Cases, or the shift to (somewhat) more voluptuousness at Poyferré. Others switched to stainless steel; he stuck to the wooden vats that have since returned to fashion. Because they seemed to work, and saved him having to spend money unnecessarily.
This in turn allowed him to be less demanding – some would say ‘greedy’ – than many of his neighbours when it came to pricing. “I know that other people make a lot of money out of reselling our wines” he once told me. But that’s their business, not mine.” Anthony Barton was a fan of the traditional way that Bordeaux distributes its wines. But this was understandable, given his creation in 1968 of his own merchant business, les Vins Fins Fins Anthony Barton, after the severing of the family link with Barton & Guestier.
Today, as Bordeaux buffs argue over which of the Léovilles they prefer -sometimes acknowledging that Langoa is the better drink ‘right now’ - they often acknowledge the distinctive elegance and stylishness of the Barton wines. That remains his legacy in this very different era of the 21st century, along, of course, with the wise and gently wry spirit he and Eva passed onto their daughter, Lilian Barton-Sartorius who, with her husband Michel Sartorius, remains at the helm of the chateaux and the merchant business.
Our thoughts and condolences go to Lilian, her husband, Michel Sartorius and their children, Mélanie and Damien.