In a world flooded with generic wines that lack identity, or “imposter” wines trying to assume the identity of an award-winning style by virtue of cosmetic winemaking tricks, Château Musar wines from Lebanon stand out as individuals.
With tremendous personality and character, these wines have a wild and exotic side that’s really alive – an intensity that grows brighter and bigger as the wines open up in the glass – and also a classy, refined side that emerges with age.
As clichéd as this might sound, Château Musar wines actually ressemble Serge Hochar, the winemaker who made them. Much like Serge, the wines all have a little age on them (intentionally in the wine’s case and luckily in Serge’s) but remain very youthful, vibrant, expressive and engaging.
Serge is all of those things and more.
After 5 minutes listening to him talk about the unique challenges of growing grapes and making wine during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) I could imagine the countless times Serge must have felt very frustrated. Château Musar is only 30 or so kilometers from Beiruit in the Bequaa Valley – not entirely out of range, so to speak. Yet he carried on and his vineyard survived the war.
Serge sort of waves off that unfortunate period of history and keeps the conversation to the present, describing himself as just a simple winemaker who’s been making wines since 1959 - without interruption…almost. “We could not produce wine in 1976 because of war,” he says. “Otherwise the vine doesn't care about war.”
One war casualty was the Lebanese people’s ability to buy, taste and enjoy wine during this time. Prior to the start of civil war in 1975 Château Musar sold 97% of its wine in Lebanon. By the time the war ended in 1990 Château Musar was one of only 4-5 wineries remaining. Serge made wine throughout, but was forced to build an export market for his wines given the domestic market turmoil.
Imagine the logistic nightmare (and peril) of executing an international “go to market” strategy during a civil war - complete with shipping wines from a war-torn port and arranging travel in and out of the country, and convincing people that you could deliver the wines you sell.
Today there are more than 40 wineries in Lebanon and the domestic thirst for wine has returned such that Château Musar sells 60% of its wines at home and exports around 40% - somewhere near 600K bottles.
The White Wine
Globally Château Musar red wines enjoy a deservedly fantastic reputation, but it was the flagship white that was the biggest surprise for me to discover.
We tasted the Château Musar 2003 white wine made from the Merwah and Obaideh grapes, both indigenous to Lebanon. This is a fascinating, exotic white wine – and not in some bizarre, rustic-indigenous-grape-sort-of-way.
The Musar white is intentionally made in a slightly oxidized style that ends up as a nicely honeyed, weighty and richly textured wine with soft acidity. That weight and texture is exactly what Serge is after.
Late maturation is one influence on this style since the grapes aren’t harvested until October. “If you're under the sun for 4 months you have more oxidation,” explains Serge matter-of-factly. “This character is a result of the late maturation.” “Of course, I can remove it,“ he says shrugging his shoulders. “But why? - I love this.”
Serge took a sip of the '03 white - and finished it with a broad grin. He proudly declared, “I believe my first red wine is my white wine.”
Another influence on the style is bottle age. Serge ages his wines before releasing them. “People won't understand it - that 2003 is the current release,” he says, “I am a crazy winemaker - not a business man.”
He keeps the wines because he knows they evolve into something much different (and more special) with a little time. He wants to reveal that to consumers and make them think about the complexity.
As he puts it, “Château Musar is an intellectual white – it is made for the brain.”
One after another we tasted 4 vintages of the Château Musar standard-bearer red.
Like the white, Serge holds this wine 7 years before release. That extra time to allow bottle evolution pays off for consumers as it allows the wine to develop attractive secondary and tertiary aromas.
Oh my grape…(OMG)…These are intensely good wines.
I was surprised to learn that it was made with (more or less) equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault grapes – a fairly unconventional blend. This is a recipe that Serge finally settled on in 1977. Why? Nothing more than 'The Goldilocks rule' - : it tasted just right.
Starting with the youngest vintage – the Château Musar 2000 - the nose on this wine was absolutely beautiful; delicate with spiced plums and a precisely focused undercurrent of cassis fruit and very finely-knit, soft tannins. This vintage showcased more of a Cabernet Sauvignon character and added a hint of smokiness when compared to the others. Relatively speaking, this drank youthfully with dense fruit concentration.
The1998 brought more Cinsault character to the wine with a lighter bodied, more pinot-like personality: Delicate, almost febrile mouth-feel with intense and beautiful cherry notes, hints of christmas spice, old leather, and dried flowers. It is drinking really nicely at the moment.
Next was the stunning 1980. With 30+ years of age it remains youthful and vibrant – alive and handsome. It’s a masculine wine with meaty, dried meat and dried cranberry aromas, a beautiful, savoury, and mouthfilling wine. The finish has a lingering aftertaste of Chinese five spice and dried mushrooms. It gets sweeter and sweeter on the nose as it opens up.
Finally we were treated to a taste of the Château Musar 1967, an incredibly fresh 45 year old wine that brought a whiff of ‘old cigar parlour’ to the nose that made me relive memories of my grandfather’s cigar box.
Fused in were aromas of dried apple peel, burnt match, some ripe and softened black fruit flavours held together by very balanced acid and soft elegant tannins.
This mid-life wine has plenty of character and is now in its prime. Coming straight from the Musar’s cellars to Singapore, I wondered what stories this bottle might tell if it could speak: It is young enough that it hasn’t lost its memory but old enough to reveal a good story to the glass.
Even long after the tasting I ach wine was an individual and drank with enduring freshness. They are all worth seeking out and excellent value for the price plus they are from Lebanon! When was the last time you drank (if ever) a Lebanese wine? Come on – try one!
Pinnacle Wine and Spirits imports Château Musar wines.
Contributed by Sarah Mayo, TLN Editor