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Château Léoville-Barton 1994

Château Léoville-Barton 1994

The history of the Barton family may be traced back to 1722, when Irishman Thomas Barton left his native Curraghmore for foreign shores, eventually settling in Bordeaux. Thomas enjoyed considerable success, and by 1745 he had bought Château Le Boscq in St Estèphe. The family business in Bordeaux then passed to Hugh Barton, a grandson, who during the Revolution was incarcerated in a Carmelite convent which the new regime was using as a prison. It was after his release, his affairs having been kept going in his absence by his business partner, that Hugh bought the châteaux we associate with his name today. He started in 1821 with the purchase of what became Château Langoa-Barton, and it was in 1822 that he acquired a portion of the great Léoville estate, the seed that grew into Château Léoville-Barton.

In the years that followed the business passed through the hands of many of Hugh’s descendants, and after the death of Bertram Hugh Barton in 1927 it was Ronald Barton, his son, who took the reins. Ronald spent the rest of his life in Bordeaux, other than some high jinks during World War II (by high jinks I really mean active service in the Middle East and North Africa, for which he was ultimately awarded the Legion d’Honneur). He set about restoring his estate from 1944 onwards, but while a much admired member of the wine trade his commendable military record and perhaps his demeanour meant that everybody in the region referred to him as ‘The Major’.

Château Léoville-Barton 1994

Ronald died in 1986, without a direct heir, and the running of the estate fell to a nephew, Anthony Barton. It was he who was in charge at the time of the 1994 vintage. This is not one of the most highly regarded vintages in the history of Bordeaux, although it was still better than the heavily frosted 1991, the mediocre 1992 and the rather lacklustre 1993 vintages. Initially hopes for the quality of the harvest across the region were high, and in mid-August the Oenology Faculty at Bordeaux University likened their most recent analyses of the fruit to figures achieved in 1982 and 1990, two great vintages. A week later heavy rains dispelled (or at least dampened) such enthusiasm. But there was still an opportunity to make some very good wines, and from the right addresses the 1994 vintage has rarely disappointed. On the other hand, it has never been a vintage to provide spine-tingling experiences either. It is a vintage for drinkers seeking out classic, claretty encounters.

The 1994 Château Léoville-Barton fits neatly into this narrative, although with quality at the upper end of the spectrum for the vintage. I have been dipping into a case (remember when a ‘case’ of classed growth Bordeaux always contained twelve bottles?) since I first broached it, back in 2004, and this must be bottle number seven or eight, at the very least. Right now, at a little over seventeen years of age, it displays a fine depth of colour in the glass, the fading pigment suggesting only very early maturity, with good central intensity of hue, and a broad, fading rim. The aromatics are classically styled, with notes of iron, swirled in bloody and peppered meat juices, spiced up with little notes of black truffle and dried, gritty blackcurrant. On the palate it feels cool and fresh, in keeping with my impression of the vintage, with a light- to medium-bodied substance, and a bright acid definition. It maintains a firm, very bright style through the middle, peppery and classic, not showing the generosity, texture or balance of a great vintage, but it has interest and flavour complexity in a bright and sappy style. It is wonderful in an old-school but very accomplished vein. Certainly drinking well now, and perhaps fading from peak, but with the passing of time that fade should allow yet more complex evolution to shine through. If my sums are right, I should have a few more bottles hidden away to see if that prediction comes true. 94/100 (29/1/18)

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