The Legacy of Léoville-Barton
In his book Bordeaux, wine writer David Peppercorn describes Château Léoville Las Cases as a “wonderful value—a wine enabling connoisseurs to enjoy claret of first-growth quality at half the price.” In my experience working with Bordeaux at K&L, Las Cases has always held that lofty reputation among the industry’s professionals. In backroom dialogues and dinner table conversations, there’s a frequent and popular topic concerning which properties would likely be elevated to first-growth status were the 1855 Médoc classification ever to be restructured. In most of these what-if, fantastical scenarios, Léoville Las Cases comes out on top as the would-be sixth grand cru. In the days before the French Revolution, the grand vin of the Marquis was considered one of the best in the world and the estate stretched all the way from Château Latour to Château Beychevelle. During the revolution, however, a quarter of the property was sold to Hugh Barton at auction after Las Cases was sequestered by the government due to the Marquis’s immigrant status. While Barton kindly purchased the vineyards with the intention of returning them to their rightful owner, the Marquis was unable to pay him back so Barton took over the estate in 1826 (ironically, Barton’s family was from Ireland, but had been in-country for 100 years at that point). Since then, the château has been known as Léoville-Barton, even though it was originally part of what we now know as Léoville Las Cases (also part of the original property was Château Léoville-Poyferré which was quartered off and sold in 1840).
If a bottle of Léoville Las Cases represents first growth quality at half the price, I’d like to add that Château Léoville-Barton offers a chance to taste the Léoville estate quality for half the price of Las Cases. Let’s look at the 2014 vintage offerings as an example. A first growth bottle of 2014 Margaux will run you about $450, and a bottle of the 2014 Las Case originally sold for $150; however, the outstanding 2014 Léoville-Barton will only cost you $70 in comparison and if you look at the reviews from the industry’s most renowned critics, I think you’ll see raves across the board. It's because of this understanding of the Léoville property's history that insiders gravitate to the Barton expression. To use a whiskey comparison, the so-called “first growth” of Bourbon at the moment is Pappy Van Winkle, but since it’s either prohibitively expensive or hard to find, customers have gravitated over to the Weller 12 year—a whiskey made from the same stocks, but at a much lower price. In my opinion, a bottle of Léoville-Barton represents the same sort of secret value for true Bordeaux lovers who can’t afford Latour, appreciate Las Cases, but want to stretch their money as far as it can go. When putting together my shortlist for 2014 cellar contenders, the Léoville-Barton was right at the top of the list with Haut-Bailly and Domaine de Chevalier.
The other endearing fact about Léoville-Barton is that it still remains in the Barton family’s hands, run formerly by Anthony Barton, today his daughter Lilian handles both the Léoville and Langoa estates. According to Peppercorn, both châteaux have been in the ownership of a single family for longer than any classified growth in the Médoc. In an age where a number of prestigious properties are being snapped up by foreign investment groups and corporate luxury conglomerates, it’s nice to know that some producers are continuing a family tradition put into place hundreds of years ago. I was thinking about this legacy when tasting the 2014 Léoville-Barton again earlier this week, the dark color brooding in the glass, representing the lifeblood of one of Bordeaux’s most historic dynasties. The wine is absolutely brilliant on the palate with dusty tannins, understated minerality, and a lush layer of hoisin, dark cherry, and grippy graphite. There’s a lot to wrap your head around in every bottle of Léoville-Barton, from the history of the terroir to the heritage of the Barton family's stewardship. For those looking to expand their understanding of Bordeaux, you get a lot of wine and wisdom for your hard-earned money.