There is something very satisfying about a proper case of wine. At one level it’s only a wooden box as opposed to the usual cardboard container but it spells promise – hopefully great wines and a bit of protection against life’s knocks. But above all it sends a signal – this is something special.
This case was just that, a selection of fairly recent but drinkable vintages of Château Langoa Barton, a much loved property in St Julien in Bordeaux, the heart of claret country. The property has connections with these islands as the ‘Barton’ in the title is of an Irish family who have lived in the château for nearly 200 years. That means that they were the owners of the property back in 1855 when the classification of the Médoc put Langoa Barton as a third growth and the related Léoville-Barton one class above. The current owner, Mr Anthony Barton, has been at the property since 1951 and in charge since 1983. All this speaks of continuity and a long term sense of purpose.
For the claret drinker, as opposed to the investor, the purpose is entirely commendable: to make high quality, classic red Bordeaux at a reasonable price. Perhaps that should be, ‘at a reasonable price by the standards of the speculation-fuelled levels of top quality Bordeaux’. The recent vintages have been £50-60 a bottle, the older ones a good value £30 plus per bottle. This tasting showed that – with the benefit of the generally good vintages of the last decade and a half – the Bartons have been producing consistently good results.
Of the six vintages in the half-case specially packed for the Wine Society four were good years, one was exceptional and was OK if nothing special. Normally in a ‘vertical’ tasting, you simply work your way from the youngest to the oldest wine, but we skipped the youngest to start with, as it was the exceptional year, 2005. Thus, we tasted through the good years 2004, 2002, 2001 (perhaps slightly flattered in this company) and 1998. These wines showed amazing consistency, just the natural progression of ageing. In these good years, while there were always anxious periods, in the end good wine was made. In 2004, for example, a cool but dry September made up for a rather luke warm July and a wet August. The youngest of the good years, the 2004, was a nice bright ruby red with a good cassis and oak nose. The palate showed good fruit, predominantly blackcurrant – the wines are made from 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc – but still quite aggressive acid and tannin, puckering the mouth. So the five and a half year old wine is not yet at its peak, though it would be fine with robust food.
A couple more years of ageing showed a marked difference. All the wines have spent two years in oak barriques, 50% of which are new each year, and then time in the bottle. The 2002, the product of a cool, dry summer and a spectacularly good September, still shows a good deep colour and has a gorgeous, complex nose, with the fruit now matched by the classic cigar box smell of well judged oak. Most markedly, the balance is now right – good levels of lively acid and smoother tannins but in balance with the fruit. 2001, while being overshadowed by the much better 2000 (not tasted), still turned in a decent wine, if one that was noticeably less fruity and less showy than 2002. Finally, in this run of good vintages, 1998, showed the beneficial effects of time in the bottle, ten years in addition to the two spent in casks. The colour is still good but with a little orange-brown tinge at the rim, but the nose is now all forest floor and cedar, with the fruit secondary, at least on the nose. But in the mouth the fruit reasserts itself. All in all, an excellent series from the basically good years.
That just leaves the bottom and the top of the class. The oldest wine in this tasting, 1997, was the product of a difficult year: early flowering, a cold and damp May, intermittent rain in June, followed by a very hot period which in turn was broken up by storms at the end of August. Though still a perfectly decent wine it led with a sort of green pepper nose, very different. But in the mouth it is soft and silky. Even in a difficult year, you can make a good wine, if you have the patience to mature it. Finally, the 2005, despite being the baby of the bunch showed its great class. The year was exceptionally dry, to the point of drought in some places, and hot, but with the blessing of cool nights in July and August. This produced a crop of fully mature grapes with small berries. As nearly all the flavour and potential of red wine is in the skins, this is a great combination, even if the wine maker would like more volume to sell. But the resultant wine is amazing, leading now in its youth with gorgeous fruit, big enough to do a fair job of dominating the excellent acidity and tannin, which in turn will give it great ageing potential – if you can resist drinking it now, that is.
Overall, this was a memorable tasting. For those of us who are not primarily lovers of red Bordeaux (see the numerous posts on Italy, on Burgundy and other French regions on this blog), it was a reminder of the very good wines that still come from this the largest fine wine area in the world. But it also showed that you have to pitch it right – at the right price-for-quality ratio for you and your friends and at perhaps above all, that good claret needs time in the bottle. And some discerning friends to enjoy it with.
Thanks to Berry Bros for the summaries of the weather conditions in their excellent vintage charts.