The Château Ducru-Beaucaillou label. Photo by Ernesto Andrade. License: Creative Commons SA 2.0 Generic.
Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, usually abbreviated as Saint-Julien or St-Julien, is a 6.3 square mile village in the Médoc known for its production of remarkably full-bodied Bordeaux blends. Less than 800 people live in the entire commune, and it is highly likely that the great majority of them are somehow involved in the wine business.
St-Julien is not packed as densely with vineyards and châteaux as the other villages, but it contains a great deal of wineries on many different levels of expense and quality. The wine, although it of course varies greatly from château to château, generally is very full-bodied. St-Julien's distinction is the unusual woody flavor that comes through after many years of aging, often compared to cedar or old cigar boxes.
A label of Château Talbot.
This photo is in the public domain.
There is little to differentiate St-Julien's early history from that of the Médoc itself, and of the other three villages within the Médoc. For years it was undistinguished marshland, but became almost immediately popular when clever winemakers discovered the excellent climate there. It thrived during the 1700s and 1800s, and survived the wine industry's periodic lulls due to its Bordeaux magic.
Like its fellow Médoc villages, it was granted AOC status in 1936. The region has gained popularity due to the ageability of its wine, and the rewarding flavors attained after years of cellaring.
Climate and Viticulture
St-Julien's gravel banks, like those of Pauillac, give the tannins and body an intense and powerful flavor that nevertheless fails to cover up the strong aromas of the wine. These wines are sternly structured, but after an apt amount of time aging, they are rarely too austere for people to drink. In other words, they make a good balance.
Of course, the weather and climate in St-Julien is very similar to that of the other Médoc villages. There are many different kinds of rock in the soil, which accounts for the wine's varied, often eccentric flavors. Some châteaux produce a lighter and more aromatic style, usually from terroirs where the gravel is not so prominent.
Only one château in St-Julien, Gruaud-Larose, is known to commonly use a small percentage of Malbec. Most others use none at all. Carménère is nearly completely run out of this village. The main four grapes are the same as in the Médoc in general, but the blends show more variety and creativity than in some of the other villages.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine doesn't reach the full-bodied, brute-force prowess it does in Pauillac, nor the refined and elegant but powerful style typical of Margaux, but has a style of its own. It is hard to generalize about Cabernet, since its flavors are so diverse even within St-Julien, but in general it produces a rich and lustrous but nevertheless strong flavor that, after many years, is evocative of cedar or old cigar boxes. Of the top St-Juliens, Château Léoville-Barton has the most Cabernet Sauvignon planted, over 70%. Elsewhere, though, Cabernet Sauvignon is not quite as respected, sometimes making up as little as 60% of the blend. Either way, it is Cabernet's flavors which give the wine its characteristic elements.
- Merlot: Merlot plays a large part in the wines of St-Julien, which often use it in percentages of 20-30 or even more in order to keep the Cabernet at least somewhat softened. Léoville-Barton, the region's most full-bodied château, uses Merlot in rather low quantities in order to keep the full-bodied flavors rampant.
- Cabernet Franc: The underrated grape of Bordeaux plays quite a large part in St-Julien, usually comprising 5% or more of the vines planted. While Cabernet Franc doesn't always make a huge difference in flavor, it can lend the wine aroma and finesse without dulling its tannic power. By far the most is used by Léoville Las Cases, where Cabernet Franc makes up more than 10% of the total vines.
- Petit Verdot: Just like everywhere else in the Médoc, Petit Verdot is used by some châteaux in small quantities to make minor adjustments to the wine's structure and power. Of the primary growths in St-Julien, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou uses the most Petit Verdot. This château's vines are at least 5% Petit Verdot.
St-Julien has no first growths, and as a result the wines are not nearly as highly reputed as Pauillac or Margaux. However, for everyone but the most exacting and/or snobbish wine buyers, the region is still quite acceptable. Quality of the crus is also elevated by the fact that no 5ers crus exist in St-Julien. Among nonclassified wines, Château Gloria is perhaps the best, producing light, soft-spoken wine of a more Margauxesque nature.
Five of the 14 2ers crus are from St-Julien. All of them are solid and more affordable than wines of neighboring Margaux and Pauillac, but the difference in flavor can be striking.
- Château Ducru-Beaucaillou: For those who don't take to the high-powered wines made at the Léoville estates, this wine offers a diametrically opposite style. Two-thirds Cabernet and 5% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot make up the blend's structure and power, while 1/4 or so of Merlot softens it up. The château is owned by the owners of Grand-Puy-Lacoste in Pauillac, and has stayed in the same family for decades. Tannins can be described as firm, but not as bitterly powerful as in the wines of many other Médoc estates. The wines are highly praised as among the best of the best in St-Julien, especially the 2003, but that one's greatness is already priced in. Some good vintages are available for under $100.
- Château Gruaud-Larose: Gruaud was a priest who started this château and helped bring it up to its high reputation. In 1867, this château was split into two separate estates, but was fortunately reunited and restored to its former reputation by a new owner. During the 1990s, the estate went through various acquisitions, but through it all the wines have remained consistently excellent. They use about 30% Merlot. Prices range from $50 to $100, which is very reasonable considering the wine's pedigree.
- Château Léoville-Barton: The humongous Château Léoville was broken off into two different estates, the Barton part of which was renamed Léoville-Barton. The château is not actually a château at all, since the winemaking process is undergone in a neighbor's château, but this has not prevented the wines from being outstanding. Amazingly powerful tannins are combined with an equalizing bouquet of fruit. For the fruit to win, and the wood flavor to manifest itself in full, long aging is required. The wine seems to be improving in the past decade, since the landmark 2000 vintage. Critics agree this is close to a 1er cru in quality, if not already there; happily for fans of the wines, prices are not at 1er levels—even the top vintages rarely command more than $100 or so.
- Château Léoville-Las Cases: High-tech Château Léoville-Las Cases now produces wine much different from the down-to-earth, brute-force-powerful offerings of their neighbor Léoville-Barton. They outdo the Bartons, however, in their dark color and rich, powerfully tannic flavor. Sometimes these wines can be too overwrought for the average person's tastes, but then again people who can afford this wine's high cost will already know how to handle this kind of power. Wine critics almost always agree on the château's prowess. Vintages are always good, but some can cost a lot more than others. The average price is around $160, but the 2005 vintage commands $400.
- Château Léoville-Poyferré: The least esteemed of the Léovilles, this one was broken off from Léoville-Las Cases after the original break. Despite its land disadvantage, it still produces among the best wine in the village. More specifically, it exemplifies the medium-bodied St-Julien style for a lower cost than Ducru-Beaucaillou. The 2003 and 2005 are especially noted, and the most pricey, but in general this wine can be found for around $75.
A bottle of the most famous Léoville estate.
Photo by BerndB on Wikipedia.
License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.
Two out of 14 3ers crus are from St-Julien.
- Château Langoa-Barton: This château is owned by the owners of Château Léoville-Barton, and the wines are produced in the same cellar. Due to land differences, though, Langoa-Barton is much lighter than any of the Léovilles, and produces wine of much less serious character. Nevertheless, it has excellent aging potential. On the downside, prices have remained peskily high.
- Château Lagrange: This well-made St-Julien is on the verge of exceeding its classification. Since it's usually under $40, this wine can be an excellent bargain, but prices are rising as demand for value Bordeaux increases.
This photo is in the public domain.
Four of the ten 4ers crus are from St-Julien.
- Château Beychevelle: A greatly underrated wine, usually medium-bodied, that can outperform its classification in the best years. The brightly but powerfully flavored wines are often available for $50 or less.
- Château Branaire-Ducru: For a long time this wine was classified as an underachiever, but now its flavors have finally modernized and critics are favoring the wine again. Prices are catching up to the new reputation.
- Château St-Pierre: This estate has a long history of producing classical, although seldom austere, wines that can be drunk young or aged for a long time. Prices reflect a good critical reputation.
- Château Talbot: The defining entry-level classified St-Julien, Talbot combines classical flavors, a good critical reputation, and prices between $30 and $50. Unlike many lower-priced Bordeauxs, this is also a very ageable wine.
St-Julien is small enough so that at this point, subregions are almost entirely inconsequential. St-Julien is a common enough name that confusion or deception could easily occur. As a result, wine buyers should only buy bottles of wine labeled as St-Julien from Bordeaux, France. Any specific parts of St-Julien matter only in a historical or trivial context.
Wines from St-Julien typically age very well. This 1911 is probably well past its period of drinkability, but the best vintages can often last 40 years or more.
Photo by BerndB on Wikipedia. License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.