Fittingly for the 150th Post on this site, the March 2016 Tutored Tasting was of the legendary Chateau Musar. This Lebanese Wine was made for years by the great Serge Hochar, who sadly died in 2014, and was actually the subject of only the third ever WING Tutored Tasting back in January 2001 (we tasted 1989-1994, by the way – which at that time were £10-£12 in UK).

Sadly, I was unable to attend the tasting myself – so the information in this post is provided by Ann and John, and they have collated notes from those present on the night too. Many thanks for everyone’s contribution and especially for Ann & John for showing the wines.

Chateau Musar has 180 hectares of vineyards both owned and leased. The red vineyards are situated towards the southern end of the Bekaa Valley, north of lake Qaroun and 30k south east of Beirut, lying near villages of Ammiq, Aana and Kefraya on a range of gravelly soils over limestone – a wide range of soil types and aspects.

Grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, and Southern Rhone varieties of Cinsault and Carignan from long established mature vines (average 40years) yielding max of 30-35 hl per hectare. Serge said “when you have the luck to work with something that is alive you should never kill it”. His view was that Cabernet provides the bones and skeleton to the wine, Carignan the flesh and muscle and Cinsault the silky smooth finesse!

The grape varietals are fermented in separate cement vats at temperatures below 30 degrees, racked about 6 months from the harvest then aged for around 12 months in French Nevers oak barriques- only a small percentage of which are new each year.

The resulting wines are blended to reflect the strengths and individual characteristics of the year 2 years after harvest and then placed back in cement tanks. They are bottled without filtration 12 months later at the end of the third year following harvest. This final blend is aged for a further 3-4 years in bottle before being released a full 7 years after harvest. This gives time for each variety to unfold its own character.

The wines are extremely long lived with the best examples lasting 20-30 years. Richly textured and are likely to throw a crust especially vintages over 10 years old. Aged examples can have a baked character reflecting the climate but also have great complexity in the form of herbal and truffley aroms and flavours. The wines can be deceptively pale and can display high levels of volatile acidity and traces of oxidation, which admirers easily overlook although some critics see as a fault. Standard stuff it isn’t!

The winery in Ghazir is 70 kms away, more than a 2½ hour drive from the vineyards. When Gaston Hochar began making wine the boundaries of Lebanon had not been set and he wanted to ensure that his premises would be inside the newly demarcated country. Thus he chose to install his winery on the family’s 18th century castle overlooking the med at Ghazir, a maronite Christian enclave about 25 k north of Beirut. Its name in Arabic is M’zar “place of extraordinary beauty/shrine to be visited” and Gaston adapted this name for his new enterprise. New cellars were built into the mountainside nearby as the company expanded and these were used as air raid shelters during the civil war.

Picking is done by hand be Bedouin Tribes-people in the cool mornings to preserve freshness, and driven in big trucks over the mountains to Ghazir. This is done between August and October.

Chateau Musar was first planted in 1930 by Gaston Hochar. In 1959 Gaston’s son Serge Hochar became Chateau Musar winemaker, while completing his winemaking studies at the University of Oenology in Bordeaux, under the tutorage of Jean Riberau and Emile Peynaud. 3 years later Gaston’s second son, Ronald takes over the financial and marketing aspects of the winery saying: “my brother looks after the liquid I look after the liquidity”

Serge Hochar finalised the blend for Chateau Musar Reds in 1977 – a basically equal mix (with vintage variations) of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan. Seven years later Decanter magazine nominated Serge Hochar as their first ‘Man of the Year’, recognising his dedication to producing superb wines throughout Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990), even when the winery and family were directly hit by shelling, but the Hochar brothers did more than stand their ground: for a short time they even used the cellars as a bomb shelter to give local people refuge. Today it is overseen by the third generation…

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These wines are all – more or less – equal blends of Cabernet, Cinsault and Carignan and all except the last wine (which is 13.5%) are 14% alcohol.

Here are (composite) notes made from the tasting on 14th March:

2008 A modern Musar. Spicy. Good grip. A little drying. Maybe a little young. Cherries. Leather.
“Nose leather/fruit/Cedar. Palate – soft fruity spicy palate, long finish. Cherry fruits. Changes in the glass.” “Flowery perfumy nose. Silky texture.” “Medium ruby. Fragrant red cherries. Plums, leathery, spice, menthol, complex. Full bodied, sweet ripe fruit. Warm soft cherries, spice. Medium tannins and acidity. Slightly dusty tannins.” “Medicinal.Herby. Reminds of an oaked Cote du Rhone.”

2007 Denser looking than 2008. From a smaller harvest. A little flabby maybe. Half thought this had less grip and complexity than the 2008 – half the reverse!
“Aroma – deeper, darker, more orangey rim. Nose – perfumey, powdery. Palate – shorter, slightly flabby. Less structure.”  “Darker, meatier, more tannins.”  “Medium spicy garnet rim. Fragrant again. Red cherries. Spice. Glue. Not as complex as 2008. More acidity than 2008. Warm aftertaste. Medium length.”  “Browner than 2008. Develops to fruit cake. Fourth best.” “Black berry fruit, shorter and less acid, velvet smooth – more Cabernet?”

2005 Floral. Violets. Peppery. Cedar for the first time. Earthy notes. Elegant. Good.
“Deep, dark, slight edge. Violet earthy nose. Some sweetness, spicy dry palate.” “Sweet, spicy, but good acidity. 2nd favourite.” “Paler ruby. Vegetal, leathery, gluey, spice. Non fruit flavours. Perfumed. Medium bodied. Very sweet fruit. Medium acidity and tannins. Spice, vegetal, cedar.”  “More perfume and spice and smoke… spice and leather palate.”

2004 More fruit. Paler. A bit disappointing. Not much to it. Airy lightness. Creamy.
“Garnet pale ring. Soft, silku, very spicy.”  “Concentrated fruit but a bit simple.”  “More muted aromas at first. Very sweet fruit. Not as complex as the others.”  ” Less complex. Fruit dominates. Lighter than the others. Straight sileage on the nose.”  “Lighter red fruit – strawberry. |Less distinctive.”
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2003 Best of the night. Leathery. Good texture. Not flabby at all.
“Best wine so far. Garnet colour, farmyard nose, cedary. Leather/spicy/aniseed hints.”  “Lovely perfumy nose, roses. Favourite. ”  “Paler. Mostly garnet. Vegetal. Leathery. Lovely integrated, spicy, smooth.”  “Medicinal on the nose. Farmyardy. More complex. Favourite. Well integrated.” “Liquorice and tar, aniseed – drier good.”

2001 Disappointing. Possibly past its best.
“Volatile acetic nose. Sweet/silky/spicy.”  “Dull. Slightly oxidised nose. Least good.”   “Very pale Garnet. Very spicy. Fruitcake. More subtle and not as good as the previous examples.”  “Appley. Oxidised? Thinner. Sweeter. Not as nice. Past its best? Sweaty saddles. Christmas then musky notes. Oxidised? A bit sharp. Over the hill.”  “Fruit cake – sweet liquorice, thin apple, past it.”

Overall ranking order: 2003, 2005, 2008/2007, 2004, 2001.

Writing up these notes makes me wish I’d been there.

Thanks to everyone for their contributions – especially Ann & John

Until next time….

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