Léovilles & Bartons: An Irish expat visits Château Léoville Barton

I became vaguely aware of Château Léoville Barton soon after starting my first wine job in 2012.

Knowing nothing about wine and somehow caring even less, I was a natural fit for my new post managing a supermarket wine department in a fairly well-to-do north Dublin suburb.

Léoville Barton

That Château Léoville Barton wine label, courtesy of Barton Family Wines

During a routine stocktake, I happened across a distinctive (and distinctively out of place) bottle among the pallets of cardboard cases of Côtes de Gascogne varietals. This lone bottle looked just a little more distinguished than anything else in the vicinity. I remember the label vividly, with its gates on either side of a fancy castle. Not that it would have meant a lot to me at the time, but this was a bottle of Léoville Barton. I informed the company wine buyer, who assured me it had gotten lost somewhere along the way, and happily took it off my hands. I’m sure it went to a good home.

From Ireland to Bordeaux

Some years later, knowing a little and caring quite a lot more about wine, I decided to move to Bordeaux. I chose to pursue an MBA in wine marketing, and that involved finding an internship. In my naivety/optimism, I had decided that my lack of French language skills would not impede my search as long as my future employer happened to have an Irish connection.

It wasn’t too long into my search that Léoville Barton popped up again. The Barton family that gives the estate its name has been involved in Bordeaux wine since one Thomas Barton arrived from Ireland in 1722. Almost three centuries later, Barton is as influential an Irish name as there’s ever been in Bordeaux.

My initial job hunt was only marginally less protracted than the average en primeur campaign. It involved several months and a few hundred applications to Bordelais négociants and châteaux. I imagine that I may have sent the lovely people at Barton Family Wines a prospective email or two somewhere along the way. Spoiler: No job at Léoville Barton, but everything worked out anyway.

Château Léoville Barton

My tenuous Irish connections aside, Léoville Barton is a top estate with a deserved reputation in Bordeaux, Ireland, and beyond.

Ranked as a second growth in the 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines, it was once part of the larger Domaine de Léoville estate that also included the properties now known as Léoville Poyferré and Léoville Las Cases.

I was already somewhat familiar with those Léovilles. I have visited Poyferré a couple of times. My friend Tracy Qiuyun Wang is one of the best guides I’ve come across in the Médoc and is a credit to that estate. Last year I had the opportunity to enjoy a bottle of 1989 Las Cases over dinner at Le Quatrième Mur with my aunt and uncle.

Barton was thus the final piece of my own Léoville puzzle. Some old friends and classmates were coming to town for our graduation, so I got in touch to arrange a visit.

Lilian Barton-Sartorius

As luck, or perhaps process, would have it, my initial email fell into the hands of proprietor Lilian Barton-Sartorius, who very generously offered to receive us personally for a tour and tasting.

This was all the more remarkable considering that our visit fell the day after Vinexpo Bordeaux, a busy time for freelance wine communicators from Ireland, let alone for château owners in Bordeaux. In addition to a packed schedule of soirées and other events, Lilian had also been pouring wine as part of the Bordeaux tasting at Vinexpo. I wouldn’t have begrudged her a day off. Whether this is how they always do it or not, I really appreciated it. In my experience, it’s not the norm.

It was a great pleasure to meet Lilian. She was a gracious host, showing us around while kindly skipping over most of the standard winery visit fare. Of course, we talked oak ageing and consultant oenologists. Then there was a family friend’s efforts to make wine in Madagascar. There was her parents’ encounter with Danish border cops shortly after she was born. There was even a potentially missed opportunity to open a pizzeria in the heart of the Médoc.

Lilian is a warm, modest and very entertaining lady, and we could’ve chatted for hours. It was a pleasure to get this brief insight into what life is like as a Barton in Bordeaux.

A little bit of Langoa

There is no “Château” Léoville Barton at all, and that’s where Château Langoa Barton comes in.

Langoa is an adjoining estate, and they make both Barton estate wines here. It might be easy to consider the two as one and the same, but Langoa has its own identity. The stately château at Langoa was built in 1758, and the Bartons bought it in 1821. This was five years before they acquired what would become Léoville Barton. It’s also a third growth in that same classification, which is a big deal. It’s a little more delicate in structure than Léoville and can be a relatively approachable introduction to Bartons’ wines.

Confident patience

I was reminded of a quote from American winemaker Tim Mondavi, “the fine wine business is measured in generations, not quarters.” The Barton family subscribe to a similar way of thinking, and as the number of generations gets into double digits, I think you could call them successful by any conceivable metric.

There’s a confident patience here that I found palpable. I found little effort (or, quite frankly, desire) to be seen to follow any emerging trends or practices. In its way, this was refreshing.

We tasted a wine each from Léoville and Langoa, as well as the family’s (relatively) recently acquired estate in the nearby Moulis-en-Médoc appellation, Château Mauvesin Barton. The Bartons took over there in 2011, a particularly difficult vintage, though things have been looking up ever since.

The Barton family is patient, and clearly willing to invest in the long-term. Lilian’s children, Mélanie and Damien, have studied various aspects of winemaking and the wine business. Mélanie is the first oenologist in the family and makes wine at Mauvesin. We briefly met Damien on our way out, and he seems quite involved with the business side of the operation.

There have been Bartons in Bordeaux for almost 300 years already. With people like Lilian and her children holding the fort, I don’t see them going anywhere anytime soon.

Langoa lunch in Listrac

Lilian concluded the tour with a tasting of the 2013 Mauvesin, the 2006 Langoa and the en primeur 2016 Léoville.

Very generously, Lilian offered that we take the bottle of 2006 Langoa with us. We shared it over lunch at Brasserie l’Embellie in nearby Listrac-Médoc. The wine had opened up considerably by the time our plats arrived. A glass of 10-year-old Saint Julien transformed a casual meal among friends into something special indeed.