Four years have passed since my last lengthy Chateau Musar encounter in 2006: Musarathon – a 10 year vertical 1988-1998. Another seemed long overdue. Chateau Musar remains Lebanon’s most well known and venerated winery; the wines are unique, every vintage is different and each matures on its own path. Many are long lived – owner Serge Hochar made his first vintage in 1959 and this vintage is apparently still going strong a half century later. Furthermore, the wines are idiosyncratic – to paraphrase a saying of Serge Hochar, they possess all the charms of imperfection.
Some liken the reds to Bordeaux (given the influence of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend and Serge’s oenology studies there), while others are reminded of the Rhône. The whites bear a passing resemblance to traditional white Rioja. Frankly, they are completely themselves, memorably Musar.
All this makes any Musarathon a fascinating and always rewarding pastime – no wonder that such events are so popular.
Sixteen wines were presented in four flights of four wines. Four whites led off the tasting before a dozen reds were shown, predominantly from the 1980’s, but stretching back to 1966. All were double-decanted as some had thrown considerable sediment. Afterwards they were matched to Lebanese cuisine. Here they are, from left to right.
White: ’03, ’01, ’95, ’90. Red: ’02, ’99, ’94, ’88, ’87, ’86, ’85, ’83, ’82, ’81, ’80, ’66
Chateau Musar White
Chateau Musar White is made from the indigenous Obidah and Merweh grapes. The vines are ungrafted and the youngest vines were planted back in 1947. Obaideh is said to be an ancestor of Chardonnay, the Merwah of Sémillon. The grapes are certified organic, fermented separately in oak and then matured in French (Nevers) oak for between 6 and 9 months without fining or filtering. They are then blended and bottled and kept for another six years before release.
Flight 1: ’03, ’01, ’95, ’90
2003 – 12%
The latest release, the lightest colour of the four whites on show, being pale brass. Only lightly aromatic at this youthful stage – vanilla notes underpin the fruit – citrus, dried apple and almond. Just enough acidity, a slippery almost waxy texture. The smallest of the four in stature, reflecting relative youth, expect more complexity with bottle age. Good but not ready yet.
2001 – 12.5%
Mid-brass colour, amber flecked. Much bigger and fuller pastry and marzipan nose. Palate is open, giving and rich, with a savoury tannin undercurrent. All kinds of fruit and nut complexity – quince, apricot, dried apple and lemon. More acidity means zippy freshness, a mere touch of oxidation. Barley sugar, butterscotch and (fleetingly) bacon fat appear before a long marzipan fade. Just hints of the honey expected to develop with time. Wine Alchemy’s Wine of the Month December 2009. Superb.
1995 – 12.5%
Pale yellow. Very restrained nose, some volatile acidity (VA) apparent on the palate plus oxidative notes, but overall it was closed up and austere. An amylic, pear-drop and sour-milk flavour dominated, giving way after a couple of hours. Suspected faulty if still drinkable, possibly poor storage – easily the least impressive of the four whites. Disappointing, but is this one bottle really indicative of the vintage? Would like to try another.
Green bottle. Dark gold with an amber rim. Big opulent nose that has developed farmyard and animal fur notes alongside marzipan and quince. Well worth lingering over before tasting, pine nuts and smoke appear in 10 minutes. Real development and interest here. Rich palate, slightly waxy, lemon groves peep from out of the mix after 30 minutes to go with quince, caramel/butterscotch and that bacon fat note. Strikingly honeyed lengthy finish. Feels like this still has decades ahead. Excellent – has it peaked yet?
Chateau Musar Red
The organic Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan grapes are harvested at low yields (30-35 hl/ha), then fermented separately in cement vats before aging for 12 months (sometimes longer) in French (Nevers) oak barriques. No fining or filtering, the wine is blended and bottled at the end of the third year with Cabernet Sauvignon being dominant at 50-80%. Chateau Musar then age the wine in bottle and finally release it in the seventh year. The exact blend differs with the bounty of each harvest and the wine is made and blended on instinct, with a non-interventionist approach, so every year is unique and each wine will make its own journey over many decades.
Flight 2: 2002/1999/1994/1988
2002 – 14%
Deep crimson, slight brickiness to the rim. Immediate thwack of volatile acidity on the nose, then herbs and bold red fruits. The palate is intense, powerful and with a touch of horse (Brett) – enough to add character without spoiling the show. Fresh acidity, cake spices. Fig, damson and redcurrant stew. An initial petillance too – still some gas, though this swirls off. Youthful, still a firm tannic grip. Enjoyable now but with much more to come and clearly has the potential for greatness over the next couple of decades. Impressive.
1999 – 14%
A classic year. Crimson colour a shade lighter showing a little more development with a wider bricky rim. Really harmonious nose, red fruit being VA influenced and with a clear tobacco note while a touch of gaminess knits it all together. With more extract and a polished high sheen texture, is there more Cabernet here? Red and black fruit, spices, herbs – and very long. Morphs in the glass into an ever more expressive wine with an ashtray heart, eventually showing mandarin and clove. Joyous. Drink or keep (preferably do both).
1994 – 14%
Bricky colour, brown tinged rim. VA in extremis on the nose, then spices and redcurrant. Palate is sweet and raisiny – suggests over-ripe grapes (was this a heat-wave year?), the dark gamey undertones help out. More viscosity and spirity warmth than other vintages and it doesn’t have the classic Musar depth or complexity either. Returned to this wine several times, always drawing this same conclusion. On its own this is still a good and enjoyable wine to drink now. In this company it’s a bit of an ugly duckling without the hallmarks of great Musar. Much less successful and can’t visualise much improvement to come, so drink up.
1988 – 14%
A broad bricky rim surrounding a small crimson core. Initially there was a huge amount of sulphur on the nose (unattractive rotten eggs) and on the palate (dumb show) which did not augur well. However, once the sulphur had swirled off there was revealed a masterful and harmonious wine with a medicinal and tobacco edge. Multi-dimensional; balsam, game and leather in the mix with plum fruit. Cinnamon and nutmeg spices. Went on improving all evening. On the cusp where primary fruit seems perfectly balanced with secondary evolution – is this the peak? Marvellous – and wine of the night.
Flight 3: 1987/1986/1985/1983.
1987 – 14%
Light, almost pinot-like colour. Red berries and smoke on the nose, hint of tea-caddy. Plenty of bright acidity, harmonious red fruits, soft and supple, earthy undertow. Excellent length.
1986 – 14%
Similar colour to the ’87. More cedar-ish nose. Fresh and lifted red berry fruit, hint of milk chocolate. Pine and plum. Strongly resembles the ’87. Long fade-out.
1985 – 14%
Again a similar colour. Violets as a floral note, more garrigue-like. A little more vanilla, of polished dark fruit. Family similarity to the ‘87 and ’86 – the differences between this trio are down to subtle nuances that tend only to become obvious in a vertical tasting.
Nothing like the previous three- earthy sous-bois nose, big body and more alcoholic power, sweeter fruit. Spicier – the return of nutmeg. Bold and inviting, though feels more rustic and less complex.
Flight 4: 1982/1981/1980/1966
1982 – 14%
Crimson colour with a broader amber-ish rim. Some milk chocolate on the nose which is reprised on the finish. Noticeably dry, with drying tannins that remain unresolved. Leather and tea with the damsons. A different expression that is less distinguished and less fine.
1981 – 14%
Fading. Hint of astringency, makes it a little chewy. Some volatility, fading strawberry flavours. Doesn’t suggest this will have much more time ahead. Hole in the middle where the fruit was, still enjoyable but past its prime, surely.
Bags of colour and a good deal finer. At nearly 30 years old it could be mistaken for a pinot in colour, but there the resemblance ends. Very full nose, warm garrigue herbs and plum fruit. Overwhelming impression of elegance in the mouth; weightless balance, plums and cinnamon spices, silken texture gives way to a long and slightly drying finish with milk chocolate. With all the edges chamfered off, this is one of the best wines here and seems timeless.
1966 – 14%
Only 43 years old and with a crumbling cork! But no worries; a light colour, really a dark rosé with crimson flecks in the core. A huge sediment left in the bottle. Lifted ethereal aromas are the best feature displayed – brown spices, smoke and leather. No real primary fruit left, still that bright acidity and a silken texture. Fleeting complexities and increasing fragility as it evolved in the glass, eventually revealing a citrus (mandarin?) spine. Still plenty of life and a very rare treat.
Red stand-outs were the ‘66, ‘80, ‘88, ‘99 and ‘02. Least successful: ’94. If I had to pick just one then the 1988 shades it for being not too young, not too old, but just right. In white, the 2001 and the 1990 share the honours – both are terrific yet illustrate either end of the development scale.
The current releases are not expensive for the quality on offer plus it’s relatively easy to get older vintages – so why not hold your very own Musarathon – just don’t forget to ask me along if you do!
Lebanese and North African cuisine were a perfect foil for these wines after the tasting – the perfect way to finish any Musarathon.
Mezze: various hummus, anchovies, olives, chickpeas and buckwheat, pita bread
Fish: sea bream dressed in charmoula (a North African pesto of lemon juice, parsley, coriander, cumin and fennel)
Meat: Slow-roasted lamb with rosemary
Meat: Barbequed chicken in a spicy marinade
Salad: tabbouleh and fattoush