Located in the middle of the Haut-Médoc district of the Left Bank in Bordeaux, Saint-Julien is the smallest of the fantastic four appellations which include Saint-Estèphe and Paulliac to the north as well as Margaux to the south. So what sets Saint-Julien apart from the rest of the Haut-Médoc ACs?
For starters, while its fellow appellations are subject to considerable variation from vintage to vintage, Saint-Julien's wines are thought to exhibit more consistency from year to year. Stylistically, Saint-Julien wines are said to hold the middle ground amongst the tannic, rustic St. Estephes, the austere, concentrated Paulliacs, and the delicate, perfumed Margaux, and are known for both their structural substance and bouquet as well as their smoothness and finesse.
Another fact that stands out about Saint-Julien is that though in the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux wines it had not a single châteaux that ranked in the Premiers Crus (First Growths) category, neither did it have any in the fifth and lowest category, Cinquièmes Crus (Fifth Growths). In fact, Saint-Julien has the highest percentage of classified châteaux of all the Haut-Médoc ACs -- boasting a total of 11 Crus Classés (Classed Growth) wines. Also notable is the fact that a full three-quarters of the wine produced in Saint-Julien comes from these 11 Châteaux.
The most highly regarded of Saint-Julien's classified wines are those of Léoville which borders on the Paulliac AC and is centered around the town of Saint-Julien. Though at one time the largest estate in this appellation, Léoville has since been divided into three separate properties (listed in generally-accepted order of superiority): Château Léoville-Las-Cases, Château Léoville-Barton and Château Leoville-Poyferré, all of which are classified as "Deuxiemes Crus" or Second Growths.
The wines of Château Léoville-Las-Cases are often of such high quality that they are sometimes priced on par with the Premier Crus (First Growth) wines. Indeed, Château Léoville-Las-Cases' wines bear such striking similarities to those of Premiers Crus Château Latour in Paulliac -- just across the stream of Julliac from the town of Saint-Julien -- that blind tasters often opt to guess "Central Médoc," rather than have to specify whether the wine is from Paulliac or Saint-Julien.
Château Léoville-Barton is considered not only to produce one of the finest wines in all of Bordeaux but to also be one of its greatest values (while its neighbor, Château Langoa-Barton, is thought of as not quite its equal). And though Château Léoville-Poyferré's wines had fallen from the place of grace they held in the 1920s, the estate was resurrected in the 1980s and is making excellent wines once again.
To the west and in the center of the Saint-Julien AC is Château Talbot whose high quality wines are considered to be just a tad shy of their Léoville neighbors'.
South of the town of Saint-Julien is the river port village of Beychevelle whose nearby Lauret marshes on the shore of the Gironde were in ancient times a center of witchcraft and the meeting place of the seven great wizards of the Médoc. Château Beychevelle's vineyards were once thought to have been protected from pests as well as hail storms by witchcraft rituals such as chasing black chickens and reciting incantations (though it is rumored that such superstitions are still alive and kicking today if one but demurely asks around).
There are four classified châteaux in and around the village of Beycheville: Château Branaire-Ducru and Château Ducru-Beaucaillou (with the latter thought to produce somewhat more polished wines) along with Château Beychevelle and Château Saint-Pierre. West of the village is Château Gruaud-Larose whose wine is lauded not only for its consistency, but also for its remarkable richness.
One other estate that, though unclassified, deserves much more than a mere mention is Château Gloria which stands at the entrance to the village of Beychevelle. In fact, so great is the glory of Gloria that in 1973 it quite nearly gained a Premier Cru classification, though this never transpired as it was felt it would cause too much upheaval in the Médoc.
Further inland, the soil becomes heavier than that near the Gironde River and -- lacking the drainage from the high proportion of gravel in the soils near the Gironde -- relies on channels built by the Dutch hundreds of years ago to lure away excess moisture. This area is home to Château Lagrange, another estate that had once been in decline but has more recently begun to regain its former stature. However, this inland château's wines, though they rank as good to excellent, are generally considered to be of lesser quality than those from around the towns of Saint-Julien and Beycheville on the shore of the Gironde.
All of this makes it clear that Saint-Julien AC, with its 11 Crus Classés châteaux and notably outstanding though oft-times underrated wines, deserves to share at least some of the limelight with its sister appellations of Paulliac and Margaux. In the meantime, look to this AC for wines near-on par with those of its glitter-twin neighbors at a considerably lower price.