Up in the Lebanese Bekaa valley at around 1,000 metres is an extraordinary property whose wines have become virtually synonymous with Lebanon. Serge Hochar has continued to make French-influenced wines here in spite of the various conflicts that have raged and blighted this beautiful but unstable region. He seeks to make only what nature will allow.
“The harmony of nature is better than anything we could ever create. I believe it should be a priority to seek to drink what is 'true' rather than what is 'good'. I once produced a wine that was technically perfect but it lacked the charms of imperfection."These statements are the key to appreciating the wines, the best known being the unique Chateau Musar Red – a still modestly-priced wine that commands a strong cult following and that shows a distinctly different personality in every vintage. As it is made to develop and change, opening a bottle always has an anticipatory thrill. So much for the red. It’s no great surprise to find that if the Chateau Musar White is less familiar it is just as individualistic; in fact it is a white wine that shares many similarities with red wine as well as one that has been criticised for faults by wine writers. The White is an organic blend based on two grapes indigenous to Lebanon that date back thousands of years: Obaideh and Merwah. It is believed that Obaideh may be an ancient ancestor of Chardonnay, with Merwah playing a similar role for Sémillon, both vines journeying overland to Europe with the Crusaders. It is clear that this part of the middle-east is a cradle of viticulture and both grapes could be imagined to share some flavour characteristics with their modern siblings. However, to my knowledge, no DNA profiling has yet been undertaken and so the relationship remains mysterious. These white grapes are grown higher up in the mountains at around 1,200 metres, where they are less affected by the intense heat of summer than the red grapes broiling on the Bekaa Valley plain. They are harvested in mid October when very ripe, so have good fruit concentration yet fairly low acidity, sugar and tannins. And yes, I did say tannins – more usually associated with red wines. The grapes then need to be transported from the Bekaa vineyards to the winery – and this perhaps contributes to the oxidised character shown by this wine. At the winery the grapes are partly fermented in French oak barrels for nine months, after which they are blended and bottled at the end of the first year. However, the bottles are not released to the market for another six years! Hence this 2001 was not released until late 2008, explaining why this older vintage is currently available –Chateau Musar does some of the ageing for you. Rule one when serving Musar White is that it needs only the lightest of chills to show it at its nuanced best – 14/15 degrees is ideal. Give it an hour in the fridge door, after rule two has been observed: always decant it for an hour or so before serving – the additional aeration really does bring out the spectrum of flavours. Rule three is always drink this wine with food. This is a wine to dine for. There’s a whole range of Lebanese mezze that fit the bill, or try Tabbouleh or Fatoush. A golden/amber colour, this wine is a joy to look at, with gleaming depths. The nose shows a wide range of aromas; brioche or pastry perhaps, more definitely marzipan, quince, apricot, apples and pears. Leave it to open up in the glass and vanilla and honey notes also peep through. The honeyed palate is full bodied, despite being only 12.5% alcohol. Nuts, caramel/butterscotch, apples and quince all vie for your attention. Then comes the deliberately oxidised note, faulty perhaps yet best described as, “so wrong it’s right”. The firmness of a little savoury tannin (yes, some tannin in a white wine) creeps in before a slippery, polished texture leads to a fading marzipan finish. To paraphrase Serge Hochar, it’s these charms of imperfection that keep you returning for more. In style then, it reminds me of a highly traditional white Rioja, as was common in Spain twenty years ago but now seldom seen, superseded by fresh, linear, modern wines. For me, this 2001 vintage is exciting drinking now and is also a far more pleasurable wine than that of the previous 2000 vintage. But, aged eight, it is still youthful and is likely to have extraordinary development potential over the next 20 years – so best buy some to drink now and some to put away. With no Lebanese food to hand, I enjoyed my bottle with a Wild Mushroom Jalousie, the puff pastry and chanterelles offered an excellent combination. In the USA, priced at $29.00 at Flickinger Wines, Chicago