Tuesday 19 April 2011

Chateau Leoville-Barton 1989

This is about not drinking Chateau Leoville Barton 1989. Readers unfamiliar with the Sediment blog, and its somewhat idiosyncratic approach to wine writing, may well observe that there are probably thousands of wines I could write about not drinking. But bear with me.

I was recently taken aback by a statement on the US wine website Snooth which said that "Fact is, almost no-one cellars wine. Something north of 90% of all wine purchased in the USA is consumed within 24 hours of purchase, and this number fast approaches 100% if the period is extended to two weeks from purchase to consumption."

Well, I cellar wine. I would say that I cellar a little wine, but my Affianced, who monitors its insidious expansion, would disagree. CJ describes it as "a small cellar, which he maintains assiduously" – well, if keeping a cellar book, and tying little brown tags to the bottle necks to remind me of their provenance, is assiduous, then I plead guilty. And in that cellar is my Leoville-Barton 1989, which I try not to drink.

I always wanted a wine cellar. It seemed something which a gentleman should possess, a simultaneous indication of taste, achievement, knowledge, bon vivant and generosity. My Dad had a bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream in the sideboard. My College had a cellar. Without the help of a printed arrow, I knew which way was up. 

I was then invited for a meeting at the house of a fairly celebrated Englishman, who had just appointed me to a new job, but who had been extremely ill, and couldn’t manage stairs. “Can you nip down to the cellar and bring us up a bottle of white?” he asked me. “Nothing too special…”.

In those three words – “Nothing too special…” – lay an entire labyrinth of English social etiquette. The understated, throwaway remark which assumed a great deal of knowledge. The subtle declaration that, of course, he had a wine cellar. The suggestion that some of its content was special. And the expectation that someone he had chosen to work with knew which wines were special, but which not too special.

What did I bring up, everyone always asks? A Sauvignon Blanc. And my host smiled, and said “That’s fine.” Because, of course, he was a gentleman.

Anyway, this month the 2010 Bordeaux en primeur offers are emerging. There are places better than this to find out exactly what that means – but twenty years ago now, I had decided that I needed a cellar, and this offer, despite my impecuniousness, was surely the place to start.

In November 1990, I bought my first ever case of serious Bordeaux, en primeur. It was, of course, that Leoville-Barton 1989. And thanks to my assiduousness, I have not only the invoice for this case, but the Bibendum  tasting notes which inspired it. “The wine represents everything that is so deservedly popular in St Julien,” they said. “Terrific fruit encased in a firm structure, with this year an extra richness that brings more depth to the wine.”

The case – the entire case – cost me £132. Now, there was tax and delivery to pay on top of that when it arrived, but even so we are talking about something like £160 when it was delivered eighteen months later. Bear that sum in mind.

Now, the only problem was that I had no actual cellar. I couldn’t afford professional storage – and, in any case, I wanted this spiritual cellar, this presence of fine wine in my home. So for the next 20 years, this wooden case of claret, virtually the whole of my original “cellar”, followed the movements of my life. It was lugged between three properties; spent three years in household storage along with my furniture; and four months in an in-law-to-be’s garage. Sadly, my “cellar” has not always been the climate-controlled haven recommended by the experts.

And even as the years passed, the right occasion to prise open the case never arrived. Big occasions were marked with big celebrations, with too many people to share what I had. Others were marked at restaurants, or catered events, with punitive corkage charges. And was the wine actually ready? It never seemed the right time to start the case. And abstinence made the heart grow fonder.

Anyway, two years ago, I was invited down to my future father-in-law’s for Christmas. Here was a chap, and a future brother-in-law as well, who really appreciated good wine. Earlier that year, the wine critic Tim Atkin had said in one of his last pieces for the Guardian that he would be drinking precisely this wine at his wedding, describing it as a “mature, complex claret”, terms which struck chords in my heart, and persuaded me that the wine must be ready to drink.

Here was an occasion on which I really wanted to appear knowledgeable, generous etc etc. Here were people I could share it with. Here was the special occasion for which to breach the case at last.

And it was truly gorgeous velvety claret; the bouquet rich, the tannins resolved in a soft, full flavour, great length – oh, all the things you want from old Bordeaux.

But… this is the Sediment blog, and there are others who write tasting notes on great wines like this; there are far more important points to make within our unique remit.

I could not drink wine of that price now. The wine which cost me £132 a case currently retails for £70–£80 per bottle – and I would wince to pay that. I didn’t buy it as an investment; I bought it so that I would be able to drink wine I could not otherwise afford, which is indeed now the case. But actually it is, in those words I remember, “too special” – and it is not drinking it which is really important.

My Leoville-Barton ‘89 is the backbone of my cellar, the wine I could serve to the grandest person who might cross my threshold. It captures and illustrates, in a single wine, all of those spiritual aspects of a cellar which I described earlier on. And it demonstrates that twenty years ago, I looked forward in life with optimism, to a point at which I have now arrived.

My assiduous cellar book contains a cutting from The Observer, 13 May 1990 – long before online archives – by Paul Levy, which helped persuade me into my purchase. His concluding paragraph applauds Leoville-Barton for honest pricing, and ends by praising owner Anthony Barton: “[His] reward for his integrity will come in the future, when his claret will be one of the few outstanding ‘89s that people can afford to drink rather than trade.”

Or, in my case, afford not to drink, rather than trade.

Now that my cellar is finally physically extant, it has a rolling content; I bought en primeur again in 2009. Perhaps some unquenchable optimism buried within me believes that there will come more occasions, in decades or two, which merit wine like this. And ultimately, that’s why I cellar wine. Some say, life is too short to drink bad wine. But hopefully life is too long to simply quaff the good.



  1. I have a similar attitude to my last remaining bottle of 1960 Taylor Fladgate port, and a couple of cases of en primeur claret dating from the beginning of this century. But there comes a time when you really have to think about drinking this stuff up before it goes downhill. And I think that it's time to drink the 1989 about now. And I would not wait for any great person to come through the door. You drink it either all on your own or -- far preferably -- with the person you love most in the whole world.

    May I say how much I enjoy the Sediment "blog", as I believe it's called.


    Nicholas Lezard

  2. The sum total of good Bordeaux in my family comprises a case of '95 Leoville Barton which my father assiduously refuses to drink.

  3. I'm with you. I cellar wine. I'm still waiting for the right time to open a '97 Brunello and I have a port that is waiting for my 10-year-old to turn 19. Over the decades, I've put many wines away to age.

    My wife and I also like to keep a case or two of wine that we go through over the year, for those non-special occasions, when we just want something to drink.

  4. "He had a weak point --this Fortunato --although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity, to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack, but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially; --I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could."

  5. Great post. Yes, definitely a good wine and definitely worth keeping some good wine around for longer. Sometimes I can't find the ones I like after a while and I wish I had bought more.

    I'll keep an eye on your blog, so we can compare notes on mine.


  6. Don't hold on to your wine too tightly! I suggest finding a "reason" to open a properly mature bottle every month -- in a manner somewhat akin to the FIFO method of accounting (First In; First Out).

  7. Crikey - where on earth do you find LĂ©oville Barton 1989 at £70 a bottle?!

  8. At the time of writing, Seckford Wines are asking £900 for a case - exactly "£70-£80" a bottle - although you can easily spend more!

  9. As a first time reader of your blog, this post really struck a chord with me. I'm 28 years old, and about six years ago I left my native South Africa for the UK (I grew up in and around Constantia in the Cape). I can't remember what exactly made me decide that I wanted a cellar, but I decided that it would be nice to be able to drink aged reds more often.

    So, on my yearly holidays back home, I would buy several cases of wine (mostly big reds) and put them away for later enjoyment. Like you, I had no real cellar, so I kept them at my parents' house, at the bottom of an unused wardrobe in the coolest part of the house.

    Now in a few months, I am so looking forward to pulling out some bottles that I laid down six years ago. It's almost entirely South African, but I have also brought back some non-SA bottles from my travels (some Murrieta Rioja, Penfolds Shiraz, Nicolis Amarone). As long as I keep replenishing it yearly, I should be able to drink great, aged reds for the effective price of young red wine.

    Great post, I really enjoyed it!

    1. Thank you for sharing that with us, and I hope we, like your cellar, will continue to bring you pleasure in the future!

  10. Why not sell it and buy some decent stuff in the £15 range? Why not think about the last thing you spent more than £15 on. Vinegar is bad for you, if you love wine enough you prioritise it, that's why the good stuff is getting so bloody expensive. Still a bargain at any price.

  11. My father in law died six months ago and his widow has brought his last bottle of Leoville Barton 1989 for us to drink on Christmas day. I write this just to encourage the sounds of salivating all over the world - but particularly for all of you who have responded to PK's excellent blog.

    My Godfather started a cellar for me when I was 13 and laid down 6 bottles of a fine Ducru Beaucaillou 1961 as a starter. Then he never mentioned his plan again and I ended up just with those six bottles. I had a couple somewhat guiltily when I was 21 and the last one on my 50th birthday - and it was terrific.

    Happy Christmas to all of you

    James Odgers

    1. What a marvellous comment to read on Christmas Eve.

      I hope both your wine and your Christmas bring you great joy.


  12. Just in case you needed to know the outcome, we decanted that last precious bottle of 1989 into a fine old silver decanter I was given by my parents many years ago. he Leoville Barton had the biggest and finest nose of any wine I think I have tried in the last decade. The profound taste was of dark prunes and blackberries, hidden caves ('Full many a gem of purest ray serene/The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear')and the deepest of undiscovered mysteries. We toasted my father-in-law, finished off with a fine, little Sauternes and prepared ourselves for today's broad daylight assault on the cold turkey: a magnum of 2002 Musar - with its whiff of cordite that confirms the astonishing perseverance of the Hochar dynasty. Oh bring lasting peace to the Bekaa, I pray. And then an afternoon snooze (as so often is needed after a wine as gigantic as Musar!), the final bastion of Christmas.

    Happy holidays

    James Odgers


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