Wine Families: the Brits abroad

The Bartons of Bordeaux, Blandys of Madeira and Symingtons of Oporto: author and journalist Henry Jeffreys looks at the role played by English-speaking families like these in some of the most important wine producing regions of the world

Henry Jeffreys writer and journalist Henry Jeffreys writer and journalist

Last year my wife and I were fortunate enough to have lunch with Anthony Barton and his wife Eva at Château Langoa Barton. As we ate the wonderfully old-fashioned French food served to us by a silent retainer and drank the impeccable wine (1982 and 1986 Léoville Barton just to make readers extra jealous) I imagined that this is what the wine business used to be like. It was a glimpse into a time before publicity campaigns and multinationals when the Bordeaux trade was run by a small clique of English-speaking families.

Eva and Anthony Barton instigated great improvements at Châteaux Léoville and Langoa Barton

Eva and Anthony Barton instigated great improvements at Châteaux Léoville and Langoa Barton

It wasn’t just in Bordeaux. At one time there were British merchant colonies all over Europe, in Jerez, Malaga, Madeira and Oporto, wherever good wine could be easily shipped to Britain and the Empire. These merchants created distinct communities, neither British nor entirely of the place where they lived. In Marsala in Sicily, British merchants intermarried with local aristocrats to form a colourful hybrid community. They lived a life of lavish balls in marble palazzos as in the novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (memorably made into a film starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon). In the case of the merchants of Bordeaux, the majority weren’t actually British, they were Irish, Danish and German, and yet they created an Englishspeaking community who played tennis and cricket, and set up clubs like proper English gentlemen.

‘ln Bordeaux the Bartons are among the last of their kind.’

The old British families sold up in Marsala in the 1920s and in Jerez in the 1980s. In Bordeaux the Bartons are among the last of their kind. They’re continuing a business founded by Tom ‘French Tom’ Barton who arrived in 1722 from Enniskillen. Despite this long history in France, the family has always kept a foot on the other side of the Channel. And with good reason: during the Second World War, the Germans tried to confiscate Langoa Barton but the cook stopped them by insisting that it was owned by an Irishman, Ronald Barton, a neutral. The cook herself was Irish and waved her passport at the Germans and amazingly they went away. In fact Ronald Barton had a British passport and was a liaison officer with the Free French at the time.

Langoa Barton, one of the few châteaux to be a family home

Langoa Barton, one of the few châteaux to be a family home

His nephew, Anthony Barton, who now runs the business, is an Irishman though most mistake him for a pukka Englishman. Nephews like him play an important role in keeping family businesses going. Benjamin Ingham built his mighty Marsala wine business on the back of his nephews. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when one of these nephews, William Whitaker, died in 1818, Ingham wrote to the boy’s mother saying ‘your son is dead, send me another.’ The letter, if it ever did, no longer exists. Anthony too didn’t have the easiest relationship with his uncle when he joined the family firm in 1948. He told me that for most of the time he was paid next to nothing until he demanded a raise because he wanted to get married. The estates, Langoa and Léoville, had become rather dilapidated so when Anthony eventually took over in 1984 he made a great deal of improvements to the cellars and vineyards.

Michael and Chris Blandy at home in Madeira

Michael and Chris Blandy at home in Madeira

Change can be slow in the wine business. Often the benefits of work instigated by one generation will only be reaped by the next. Vines need time to become productive and wine needs to mature. Madeira wine can mature for centuries. The Blandy family has been on the island since 1811. The story goes that John Blandy was sent to the island with General Beresford’s army to help defend it against Napoleon, though new evidence suggests that he was actually there, like so many modern British tourists who travel to the island, for a rest cure. He evidently liked the place, decided to stay and moved into the wine business. The Blandy family now owns the Madeira Wine Company which is responsible for a quarter of the island’s production. Just as with the Bartons, their business has been reinvigorated in recent years. The current chairman Chris Blandy told me: ‘In 2011, the year of our bicentenary, the family took the decision to invest back into the wine company and it is the first time, since the 1980s, we have a Blandy family member leading the company.’

‘The Blandy family have been on the island since 1811.’

It was the Symingtons of Oporto (but originally from Scotland) whom the Blandys bought out to regain control of their family business. Oporto more than anywhere else in the wine world has preserved the old British atmosphere. The Factory House, the British club, is still only open to shippers from British houses. But things have changed. Whereas in the past the British, with a few honourable exceptions, led a quasicolonial existence speaking rather ropey Portuguese, now they are far more integrated. Paul Symington, chairman of the company that owns those great names, Cockburn’s, Graham’s, Warre’s and Dow’s, is keen to stress that his home is in Portugal. Indeed he didn’t visit England until he was 13 because the family didn’t have the money to travel. Chris Blandy too thinks of himself as Madeiran rather than British.

The Symingtons say of themselves: ‘we are a rather curious blend of nationalities; a mixture of Scottish rationality and hard work, English common sense and Portuguese flair, emotion and romanticism.’ Johnny, Rupert, Charles, Paul and Dominic

The Symingtons say of themselves: ‘we are a rather curious blend of nationalities; a mixture of Scottish rationality and hard work, English common sense and Portuguese flair, emotion and romanticism.’ Johnny, Rupert, Charles, Paul and Dominic

There’s something reassuring in an age of global corporations and venture capital that families such as the Blandys, Bartons and Symingtons not only exist but are thriving. One gets the impression that stewardship and preservation are as important to them as the bottom line. It hasn’t been an easy ride. Running a family business requires tremendous diplomacy. There are always those tempting offers to sell out to multinationals. The Blandys and Symingtons are blessed with strength in depth. Paul Symington runs the business with his cousins Rupert and Johnny. His brother Dominic and cousin Charles are also involved. The Barton legacy rests with Anthony and Eva’s daughter, Lilian Barton-Sartorius and her children Mélanie and Damien. Fortunately she struck me as a formidable personality, utterly committed to continuing her father’s work. When you open a bottle from Langoa Barton or Blandy’s, or indeed The Society’s Exhibition Vintage Port, you are tasting a little bit of history. Long may their producers remain family concerns.

‘…stewardship and preservation are as important to them as the bottom line.’

Search on our website for wines from Blandy’s and Symington, or go to p145-147 of the List. We also have some stock of 2009 Langoa Barton which will be ready to drink from 2020 (ref N-CM13831, £55 per bottle and ref N-CM13832, £29 per half bottle).

Book offer

Henry Jeffreys’ book: Empire of Booze

Henry Jeffreys’ book Empire of Booze: British History Through the Bottom of a Glass has just been published by Unbound. Members can order a copy of the book for the special price of £10.40 instead of £12.99 (hardback) for UK delivery. Please order directly by telephoning 01206 255 800 and quote reference ‘winesociety’. Order by 16th December to guarantee delivery in time for Christmas.

Henry Jeffreys has also written an article for us on the great fortified wines of the Roussillon which is published here

December, 2016

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