Sunday, 23 May 2010

Chateau Musar

Chateau Musar from Lebanon was my favourite red wine when I was a student and today, several years later, I still devote a corner in my cellar to its wines which seem to last forever.  My favourite column in Private Eye then was Auberon Waugh's weekly diary where he would rave about Musar as being the ideal, bargain basement wine for impecunious claret or Burgundy lovers (though the wines are more Rhône-like than either, if one must compare).

The property is at 1000 metres high up in the Bekaa valley near Beirut and wine has been made here by the Hochar family since the 1930s (though wine was made here hundreds of years BC by the Phoenicians).  The red wine for which the estate is famous is from a blend of Cinsault, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon and yet, even if these grape varieties are familiar to many wine drinkers, the resultant wine is so distinctive as to make it one of the world's easiest to spot in a blind tasting.

One distinguishing characteristic of the wine is the prominent amount of volatile acidity (or VA) which is caused by acetic bacteria when fermenting or recently fermented wine is exposed to air. If left unchecked, the wine turns to vinegar.   VA which is not excessive gives wine extra fragrance and a slight sweet and sour character which is very appealing (think of your best balsamic vinegar).  In most properties in the rest of the world grapes and wine receive doses of sulphur to protect them from the air to keep VA to a minimum but at Musar VA is encouraged and helps make the wines unique.  

Other taste characteristics of the wine include a distinct gaminess, especially as the wine develops in older vintages, and a strawberry fruit which varies from tinned to fresh and wild!  The wines never have much tannin (they are never released before 7 years) and yet seem to age very well without changing that much in character.  Where most age-worthy reds continue to improve with age and then decline gradually, Musar is ready to drink when it's released and then appears to stay on a plateau for years and even decades.  It goes well with roast game birds, the relatively lighter vintages with pheasant and partridge, the bigger, older ones with grouse.  

Doubting Thomases who say that VA can destroy a wine have not tasted Musar vintages going back several decades which still taste vibrant.  Indeed, Spain's most revered, age worthy wine Vega Sicilia (I have enjoyed the 1962) also has copious amounts of VA in its mix as does arguably the twentieth century's most highly regarded claret, château Cheval Blanc 1947, still drinking well now (so I hear).

When the Musar 1995 was released a lot of tasters apparently condemned the wine because of its very high levels of VA; that vintage is now regarded as the best of the 1990s (it has a VA level of 0.8g/l, 1.2g/l being the maximum desired).

The 1984 vintage took 5 days to reach the winery because the vineyard was in a battle zone and so the grapes started fermenting in the back of the truck.  The resultant wine, which has not been released, had a VA level of 1.2g/l but according to the family is now eminently drinkable.  Indeed, Serge Hochar claims it is the 40 mile journey from vineyard to winery by truck that 'inoculates' the wines against oxidation giving them great longevity and helps create the Musar style.   

At a tasting last week at the London International Wine Fair we tried the 2003, 1997, 1980 and 1977.  All were good (though the 1977 was suffering a bit on the nose probably because of a faulty cork), the younger wines intensely, sweetly strawberryish and fragrantly 'volatile', the older wines more leathery and tarry but still spicily fruity.

The 'second' wine which is called Hochar Père et Fils was also on show from the 2003 vintage; it spends less time in barrel and is fruitier (with an added dash of Grenache) though still has that characteristic twang of VA.  The reds were mainly served from decanters as they are not filtered or fined before bottling and form quite a sediment.
Some members of the Hochar family were present at the tasting including the founder's sons, Serge (who was Decanter Magazine's first "Man of the Year" in 1984) and Ronald (named after the late Ronald Barton, a family friend, of châteaux Léoville & Langoa fame, who convinced the founder to take his wines seriously);  their respective sons were there too,  Gaston (named after his grandfather who founded the winery) and Ralph.

They switched from good English when addressing the audience (with much self-deprecating banter from Ronald) to perfect French when talking amongst themselves (reminding us of Lebanon's relatively recent colonial French heritage). When challenged about VA Ronald asked, rhetorically, what would Musar be without volatile acidity... and how would it age (or not).  

The red wine style is resolutely old fashioned and old world.  French oak is used to age the wine but the château wine never stays longer than a year in barrels, few of which are new.  The Hochar Père et Fils spends 6 to 9 months in oak as do the whites; we tried the 2003 and 1990 which were big and bold, in a slightly oxidised style reminiscent of old style white Rhône or mature dry white Graves though with perhaps less acidity.  In fact, my first thought on smelling the 2003 was of Ygrec, the dry white Bordeaux from château d'Yquem.

The whites are made from Obaideh and Merwah grapes which are indigenous to Lebanon and allegedly the origins of Chardonnay and Semillon.  The lack of acidity and quirky flavours don't lend themselves to any obvious food pairings though I wouldn't say no to a rich lobster or crab dish... and would drink the house Arak spirit with the traditional Lebanese meze!

my thanks to Richard Hunt of Chateau Musar (UK) Ltd. for squeezing me in to this heavily oversubscribed tasting, full of loyal Musar customers, or "friends", as the Hochar family prefer to call them.  For those who just don't get the eccentric, unique wine styles of the estate there is a new range of unoaked, more modern wines for immediate consumption called Musar Jeune in white, rosé and red. They are not so modern however that they have screwcaps (perhaps in 50 years time quipped Ronald) or upfront, zesty, juicy fruit: they remain quite savoury.  

One unanswered question for me is why the label eschews the circumflex (â) on château.... just in case any of you wanted to correct my spelling above!

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