Thursday, 5 May 2011

Chateau Musar Tasting

Chateau Musar Tutored Wine Tasting

Oxford University Wine Society

For those interested in these fascinating wines, I strongly recommend the Wines of the Lebanon by Michael Karam. Informative and beautifully illustrated, this won the Gourmand Award for the Best New World Wine Book and is pretty much the definitive guide to this area.

Ten-years on from our last tasting with Chateau Musar, it was a pleasure to return to Trinity College for this excellent evening, which included some of the wines featured last time. It my opinion, it was a better tasting, with the wines showing very well, although maybe that is as much down to my palate becoming accustomed to (indeed, actively seeking out!) these famous wines. I must try and find my old notes to type up and compare. From what we tasted this evening, my overall impression is that the style has modernised just a touch. Such monumental vintages such as the 2003 to my mind are more polished than the wines of old, but still equally weighty, age worthy and still showing that classic Musar volatile tang that you either love or hate. This is probably simply down to better viticulture and vinification than any active change in style. Overall I was impressed with the uniformly high quality of these wines. Although the style may not be to everyone’s tastes, I would encourage everyone to sample these wines at some stage as they are really quite unique.

From the tasting notes: Chateau Musar is on the Mediterranean cost just to the north of Beirut. The Bekka Valley vineyards, at around 1Km above sea level, are cradled between mountain ranges parallel to the Syrian border. Grapes have been cultivated for over 6,000 years in the high-altitude idyll, blessed with a mild climate and 300 days of sunshine a year. Youthful entrepreneur Gaston Hochar, who founded Musar in 1930, handed over the reins to Bordeaux-trained son Serge in 1959. Over 50 years, Serge has trialled each vineyard and winemaking aspect, remaining true to a natural philosophy: ‘organic’ before the term was coined.

Having a vineyard in a civil war zone is quite unique, but only two vintages have been lost to conflict: 1976 and 1984.

All wines were double decanted at noon for an evening tasting.

Chateau Musar white 2003
Seven years in the making, made from indigenous Lebanese varieties Obaideh and Merwah (related to Chardonnay and Semillon) from ungrafted vines around 1,300m above sea level and fermented and matured in French oak (Nevers) barrels for 9 months. Much fresher and considerably less oxidised than older vintages I have tasted (albeit not tasted for at least 10 years!) Of all the wines, this has changed the most in style. It is none the worse for it. This was double decanted at noon for an evening tasting, and served only a touch cool at approx 15C. It has sufficient structure that any cooler would clearly hide much of what it has to offer. Open and intense, with a touch of Semillon character to it. Complex, nutty, full and long with a touch of chemical character to it. Quite remarkable and individual . This is a wine lovers wine; the strength of unique character will not be to everyone’s tastes. I would imagine this has decades of life ahead of it and it would be fascinating to follow its evolution. Unfined and unfiltered. Yields were reduced in 2003 due to a cold snap during flowering. I have no idea what food you could partner with this – it is quite capable of standing along by itself as something to chew on! Only 12% alcohol. 17/20.

Chateau Musar Rose 2006
Mainly local grapes with approx 70% Obaideh, 5% Cinsaut for colour and the remainder Merwah. Nine months in oak. Decanting recommended. Serve lightly cool at 15C. Lightest of light salmon pink in colour. Delicate floral rose nose. Weighty, full palate. Full and round with almost a hint of pepper on a long finish. Warm. This is a very serious high quality rose wine, perhaps the best rose I’ve tasted in a long time. 12% alcohol. 16/20.

Chateau Musar Jeune Red 2009
A new wine since I last tasted the range. Interestingly this now occupies the price point that Hochar Père et Fils once did, and seem similar if more modern and fruity in character. In turn, Hochar Père et Fils now occupies the price point that the Chateau wine sold for 10-years ago, but is a better wine than I remember. The Musar Jeune is an un-oaked Cinsault-Syrah-Cab blend from a single village in the Bekka Valley. Raised in oak for nine months, with two years ageing in bottle prior to release. Deep, dark red in colour, it really lacks the volatility typically associated with Musar. It is a very good quality wine for the price point. Dominated by spicy black fruits, this is a medium bodied wine begging to accompany a steak on the BBQ! 13.5% alcohol. For keeping in the medium term, as it does have considerable structure, but I suspect it won’t improve with maturation and is best appreciated as-is. 15.5+/20.

Chateau Musar Hochar Père et Fils red 2004
Single vineyard wine from vines over 50-years old near Aana. Deep soils over limestone. Nine months in oak with extended bottle ageing prior to release. Pale red, aged rim, notable large slow tears running down glass.. Striking volatile nose, classic Musar in style. Fine tannins on the palate, but a slightly thin middle, lacking in fruit. While this is considerably better than previous Hochar Pere et Fils wines I have tasted, I think this is ready for drinking right now and won’t improve with keeping. 14% alcohol. 16+/20.

Chateau Musar red 2003
The ‘Grand Vin’ of the estate. Seven years from harvest to release. Cab Sav-Cinsault-Carignan fermented in cement lined vats. Two-four weeks maceration and matured 12-15 months in Nevers French oak barrels. Four years bottle ageing prior to release. Considerably more colour than the Hochar Père et Fils tasted prior to this, which is in fact one year younger. Nose quite reticent and closed, not overtly volatile. Lots of meat to the palate, full bodied and tannic, but married together well. Elegant controlled power! The palate shows more volatility, but more red fruits and relatively primary at this stage in its development (for a 7-year old wine!). 14% alcohol. Right now I would give this 16/20, but in a decades time this will be getting into its stride and no doubt be a considerably better wine scoring higher. This will come together to make a great wine that will go the distance over the coming decades.

Chateau Musar red 1999
Described as a ‘textbook’ Musar vintage. Widely praised by critics, and I have to agree. Pale rim, medium density core. Gives the impression that this is just starting to open up. Measured volatility on the nose, not overwhelming or dominant. Spicy red fruits, but showing some maturity. Powerful, full bodied palate. Firm tannins, but very in keeping with the wine, not at all angular. Elegant and structured. To my mind showing the best this evening, although others preferred some of the older wines. I think this is drinking magnificently now; clearly it will mature and develop further over the coming two decades. In this time I would imagine the red fruits to fade and the volatility to come to the fore. I like it now. 14% alcohol. At least 17+/20.

Chateau Musar red 1998
From a cooler year. Cinsault-dominated vintage. Interesting tasting this side-by-side with the 1999. They are clearly related, but really very different. Paler, open nose but rather gamey and green. Something a little medicinal about it. Burnt rubber. Tea-like and a little thin on the palate. So much more mature than the 1999 despite being just one year older. Drink now. 15.5/20.

Chateau Musar red 1993
Showing age with an orange rim. Fully mature nose, volatile and burnt. Very tertiary and roasted. Palate is round, smooth and integrated. Fine, mild tannins. Soft, cedar and long. Chocolate and dark spice. Long. I note this now retails for about seven-times the price I originally bought a bottle for 10-years ago (approx £70/bottle)! Drinking now, will no doubt keep but I can’t imagine it will improve further. 14% alcohol. 17/20.

Chateau Musar red 1991
Staggering wine at 20-years old! Now light orange in colour on the rim and browning core. Seems to be lighter on the nose than the 1993, as if its fading a little. Still strikingly volatile. Thinning out on the palate, but has a spicy after taste very reminiscent of a Bloody Mary! Hot and a little bit empty on the finish. Drying out. I’m aware this tasting note sells this wine a little short, and I should emphasise what an enjoyable and fascinating wine this was to taste. Drink soon, won’t improve any further with keeping. 14% alcohol. 16(+)/20.

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