Henry Jeffreys

‘To a wine lover, it was like taking a call from God’ – remembering Anthony Barton

'To a wine lover, it was like taking a call from God' – remembering Anthony Barton
Châteaux Langoa Barton
Text settings

In 2014 I received a mystery phone call. It came from a French number but the voice sounded like a patrician Englishman from another age. It was a voice that you can imagine following into battle: 'Hello, it’s Anthony Barton here'. You might not know the name but to a wine lover, it was like taking a call from God. Barton, who died this week at 91, was the man behind Châteaux Léoville Barton and Langoa Barton, and his family were Bordeaux aristocracy.

I was writing a book about the history of the British and wine, and had sent a message to the information at Langoa Barton email expecting at best to hear back from a PR representative, as had happened at Lynch-Bages. Instead, Anthony phoned me out of the blue. He told me that he was intrigued by my book and indeed had read something I’d written in the Spectator on fluffing a blind wine tasting that had greatly amused him.

He suggested that my wife and I come and have lunch at the château one day. I was nearly speechless that he had personally contacted me but later learned that this was entirely in character. He was generous with his time and disliked the increasingly corporate world of modern Bordeaux. So one day in 2015 we found ourselves turning up in a taxi at the gates of Château Langoa Barton.

The property had been in the family since 1824 when it was bought by Hugh Barton. His grandfather was Tom 'French Tom' Barton who came to France from Enniskillen in 1722 and founded a wine dynasty. In partnership with a Frenchman, Daniel Guestier, the family became one of the most powerful forces in Bordeaux. They sold the merchant business Barton & Guestier in the 1960s but held on to the Langoa Barton and sister property Léoville Barton.

Despite being in France for hundreds of years, like many Anglo-Irish families, the Bartons retained their roots, sending their children to school in England and holding British, and later Irish passports. Along with the firms like Nathaniel Johnston & Fils, and other northern European merchants, they created an English-speaking community who played tennis and cricket, and set up clubs like proper English gentlemen. They ran the city’s wine trade until the arrival of the multinationals in the 1960s.

Anthony Barton came across as every foreigner’s idea of the perfect Englishman but he was in fact Irish, born in Country Kildare, and educated in England. He came to work for his uncle Ronald at the age of 21. Apparently it wasn’t the easiest relationship, he told me that he was badly under-paid and found it very difficult to keep up the kind of lifestyle he wanted. Anthony moved in a fast set, close friends with Antony Armstrong-Jones, and is rumoured to have had a fling with Princess Margaret.

Ever the diplomat, I decided not to ask hi about the alleged affair when we sat down to lunch with Anthony and his Danish wife Eva. They made a striking couple, she poised and chic, and Anthony at 85 still ridiculously handsome with leonine hair and a glint in his eye. He was dressed in a blazer and cravat and was very pleased that I was wearing a tie, saying that it was sad that nobody wears ties anymore. They both seemed particularly taken with my glamorous Californian wife and were keen to hear how we met.

Before lunch, we sat at a low table piled high with books so we could barely see each other and drank vintage Pol Roger. Most Bordeaux châteaux are used for corporate entertaining, but Langoa-Barton was a family home complete with toothbrushes sitting in a cartoon tumbler in the bathroom.

Then it was time to eat. I can’t remember much about the food, only that it was gloriously old-fashioned, no al dente vegetables here. It was served by a recalcitrant staff member in slippers, clearly he’d been with the family a long time as he and Anthony bickered amiably about the serving of the wine.

There was no wine talk, until, perhaps something of a faux pas, I asked him about what we were drinking and he challenged me to guess the vintages which I got hopelessly wrong. The two reds were both from Leoville Barton: a wild rather hedonistic 1982, a hot vintage and the last made by his uncle; and then the classical perfumed 1986, pure Medoc magic.

According to Anthony’s daughter, Lilian Barton-Sartorius, who showed us around the property before lunch, wine making was pretty primitive in Ronald Barton’s day. When Anthony took over following his uncle’s death in 1983, he revamped the cellars and vineyard practices, and turned the underperforming estates into some of the finest in the Medoc. Decanter magazine named him ‘Man of the Year’ in 2007. In some vintages Leoville Barton, a second growth, outperforms its first growth neighbours, but he was immune to the sort of over ambitious pricing that made Bordeaux a byword for greed in the 2000s.

Despite, or perhaps because, he came from such an illustrious line, Anthony maintained an amused distance from the world of wine. The strange Bordeaux system where wines pass through various middlemen before arriving in shops meant that he had little to do with his eventual customers. Which was how he liked it. He made the wines he wanted to make, charged what he thought he should, and they sold, that’s all that mattered. Château Langoa Barton was not open to the public.

The wines were so good that I wanted to take notes but thought this might have been another faux pas. So we just enjoyed them quietly while Anthony and Eva regaled us with stories. I remember one in particular about how during the second world war, a group of German soldiers arrived to requisition the château. They were confronted by the fearless cook who told them that it was the property of a neutral, Irishman Ronald Barton. The cook herself was Irish and waved her passport at the Germans and amazingly they went away. Ronald Barton, in fact, had a British passport and was fighting with the Free French at the time.

It felt like one of those lunches that could have gone on all afternoon, but we had a plane to catch back to England and Anthony needed a lie down. He was already ill when we met. In fact, he informed us he had nearly cancelled lunch but had rallied that morning. There was something that affected his balance but not even the most expensive American doctors had been able to explain what it was or treat the symptoms.

I was hoping it would be the start of a beautiful friendship but after he emailed me to say that my book had arrived I never heard from him again. I later learned that his health declined quite rapidly since our meeting in 2015 but that recently he had been happy to see his granddaughter get married.

Anthony and Eva had two children, Lilian and Thomas. Sadly Thomas died in a car accident but happily Lilian, her husband and their children now run the business so the family legacy seems safe for the foreseeable future. And yet Anthony Barton’s death does seem like the end of an era. He was the last of a particular breed of Anglo-Irishmen who once ran the Bordeaux wine trade. I feel fortunate to have met him and had a glimpse into a world that has now almost completely vanished.