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  • Monday 1 July 2002

Perceived as the archetypal red Bordeaux, it is very hard to fault Saint-Julien. James LaWther MW explains its enviable reputation.

I suspect there may be a touch of envy in the Médoc when it comes to Saint-Julien. It's understandable. An appellation where 80% of the vineyard area is owned by 11 high-profile cru classé châteaux, including five second growths, is already irksome. But the fact that in recent years these estates have maintained an unrivalled level of consistency is even more vexing. So what is Saint-Julien's recipe for success?

First, let's start with the wine itself. The Oxford Companion to Wine states that Saint-Julien is for those who seek 'subtlety, balance and tradition in their red Bordeaux', while in the Bordeaux Atlas Michael Broadbent MW describes it as 'the archetypal Englishman's claret'. Both expound the idea that, whereas some may object to the power and concentration of Pauillac or the austerity of Saint-Estèphe, and others feel uncomfortable with the variations in Margaux, Saint-Julien is what everyone sees as the quintessential red Bordeaux – essentially a medium-bodied wine that is dry but with mellow fruit, restrained, digestible and long-lived.

Marcel Ducasse, general manager of third-growth Château Lagrange, says that 'balance' is the word best used to describe the character of Saint-Julien. 'The wines should be fruity and tannic but not excessively so, not too extracted, and with more length than volume,' he explains.

In terms of the influencing factors that help determine the style and quality of Saint-Julien, terroir obviously plays a part. A compact appellation of some 910ha (hectares), the region comprises two well-exposed and drained gravelly plateaux that are bounded to the north by Pauillac and the south and west by appellation Haut-Médoc. A ridge of deep gravel overlooks the Gironde estuary to the east and it's here that a good percentage of the second growth vineyards – Léoville Barton, Las Cases and Poyferré – are to be found. The walled grand clos of Château Léoville Las Cases, in particular, is in close proximity to the estuary and borders Château Latour in Pauillac, a possible reason for the slightly steelier character found in its wine.

Further south on the Beychevelle plateau, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou also dominates the estuary but, because the limestone bedrock is higher, the gravel is thinner, which could contribute to the added finesse of the wines. All these vineyards benefit from the free-draining, deep-rooting effect of the gravel and the warming influence of the estuary. The only 'inland' second growth, Château Gruaud-Larose, overlooks the Jalle du Nord stream to the south and possesses a single unit of well-exposed vineyards located on deep gravel with a higher percentage of clay. The grapes ripen well and the wines appear richer in style.

The 110ha of fourth-growth Château Talbot are also grouped together, but in the centre of the appellation, at an apex of 23m, which is high for the Médoc. A core area of 60ha has deep gravel soils, but as the vineyards run west so the gravel becomes thinner, the soil sandier and the wines lively but less intense. There can also be a difference of two to three days in ripening. Further west Château Lagrange is another huge domaine of 113ha, with a mixed bag of soils. A gravel hillock to the east of the château is considered the highest quality zone.

The other classed growths are parcelled in composition. Château Beychevelle has a third of its vineyard on the Beychevelle plateau but also has parcels elsewhere, including an authorised plot in the Haut-Médoc commune of Cussac, as has Ducru-Beaucaillou. Châteaux Branaire and Langoa-Barton also have vines on the Beychevelle plateau, but Branaire's land is to the far west, near Saint Laurent. Château Saint-Pierre is perhaps the most scattered and includes a plot of authorised land in Pauillac.

The overall picture is one of a good ripening zone but with natural variations according to vineyard location. Another variable is the grape variety. The gravel soils lean towards a dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon, but less so than in Pauillac. A typical vineyard ratio would be 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, with the remaining 10% planted to Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. However, this varies according to château and vintage. Château Talbot has a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot in the 2000 vintage, compared with, respectively, 55% and 40% with a complement of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in the 2001.

Good estate management and, of course, investment play an important role in Saint-Julien, and in this respect the small group of producers in the appellation are a fairly cohesive bunch. Friendly rivalry exists and there is a clear-cut hierarchy (witness the release price of h76 (£48) at the top end for Léoville Las Cases compared with h17 (£11) at the bottom for Branaire in 2000), but basically they pull together. The most tangible evidence of this is the h3.8 million (£2.4 million) joint investment in a water purification plant which was built to serve the whole appellation and is, at present, the only one of its kind in Bordeaux. Individually, the impetus of steady and devoted family ownership has benefited a number of the top estates. The Bartons have owned Châteaux Léoville and Langoa-Barton since the 1820s, with Anthony Barton carrying the flame from 1985. The style of management has always been gentlemanly and discreet, but greater rigour and increased investment in cellars and vineyards over the last 20 years has definitely reaped rewards. In the vineyards, unsung hero Michel Raoult, technical director for the last 18 years, has achieved a considerable amount; replanting, tending the soils with organic material and refusing to do any vendange vert or green harvesting.

The same scenario can be found at Châteaux Léoville Las Cases and Ducru-Beaucaillou where, over the years, the Delons and Bories, aided and abetted by a devoted workforce, have maintained exemplary standards. In the mid-1900s, the Cordier family provided stability at Château Gruaud-Larose, but the property has since changed hands three times. Nevertheless, the wines have been of a regular quality and continuity has been maintained through general manager Georges Pauli, who has been around since 1971, and a massive investment programme in the 1990s by owners Alcatel-Alstom. All present owner Jean Merlaut has had to do is not rock the boat.

Château Léoville Poyferré has been the least consistent of the second growths but has had a fairly comprehensive shake-up since Didier Cuvelier took over the management in 1979. Half the 80ha estate has been replanted, the cellars have been renovated and rebuilt and, with the assistance of consultant oenologist Michel Rolland, selection has become more severe. Improvements there have been, not least in the big Cabernet years such as 2000, 1996 and 1986, but there is still the feeling that the very best is yet to come. Specifically, a prime parcel of 8ha opposite Léoville Las Cases was only replanted in 1995 (the old rootstock caused a rusticity in the tannins) and has yet to be used in the grand vin. The other classed growths have also benefited from fairly extensive investment programmes and a drive for quality and consistency. Thierry Rustmann estimates they invest h1.2 million (£0.75 million) a year to maintain standards at family property Château Talbot. This has included a new bottling line, storage facilities and reception centre for the harvest, as well as drainage and an increasing amount of work in the vineyards. 'The more we strive for quality the more we return to manual work in the vineyards,' he says. At Château Beychevelle equipment has been renewed, cellars renovated, vineyards overhauled and, as everywhere, selection made more stringent. 'Since 1995 we have lost the equivalent of 8,000 cases of Château Beychevelle a year through wines being downgraded to the second label,' explains manager Philippe Blanc.

The most spectacular results of astute management and investment can be seen at Châteaux Lagrange and Branaire, the two crus classés previously considered to be dragging their heels. Château Branaire has been turned around since the Maroteaux family purchased it in 1988, while Château Lagrange has experienced nothing less than a revolution. Acquired by Japanese drinks company Suntory in 1983 for h8.2 million (£5 million), a further h30.5 million (£19 million) was then injected. This enabled the purchase of new buildings and equipment and an increase in the area under vine from 56ha to the present 113ha. As the vineyard is still relatively young, only 35% of production is selected for the grand vin. 'Lagrange will be truly great when I'm no longer here,' says Marcel Ducasse, estate manager for the last 20 years. The steady rise in prices and dwindling volume of grands vins has created a growing market for the second labels. Château Léoville Las Cases was the first to 'build a brand' with the Clos du Marquis, now selling at the price of a fifth growth, and the other estates are also looking to improve and consolidate in this sector. This often means more selection and attention to quality through the creation of a third label or selling part of the wine off in bulk, as well as a higher percentage of new oak for barrel ageing. There is also a certain affirmation of style. Les Fiefs de Lagrange, for instance, always has a higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon than Lagrange, due to the age of the vines.

As for the crus bourgeois and smaller Saint-Julien estates, they are few in number and tend to get swept along on the tide. Châteaux Glana and Gloria are the largest, with La Bridane, Hortevie, Lalande Borie, Moulin de la Rose and Teynac the pick of a limited bunch. Investment is evidently less expansive than at the grands crus, but quality is still a driving factor. Since the early 1990s, Château Teynac has grown to 12ha and increased the volume of work in the vineyards. There has been new investment in tractors, barrels, sorting tables and plastic containers for hand- harvesting and selection has improved with the introduction of a second label. It could almost be a grand cru.

Vintages may vary but it's difficult to find a flaw in Saint-Julien. The terroir and compact nature of the appellation provide a solid framework to which management and investment have boosted quality and consistency. What's even more encouraging is that there is still room for improvement. Léoville Poyferré has that well-sited parcel waiting to come online for the grand vin, and Léoville Barton has something similar. Château Lagrange's vineyards can only improve with age and there's potential for Château Beychevelle to increase the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon on the superb plateau de Bechevelle. It's enough to turn the darkest Pauillac green with envy.

James Lawther MW is based in Bordeaux and is a contributing editor to Decanter

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