Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Chateau Musar with Serge Hochar

I've been neglecting this blog for a while, but prompted by two things, an acquaintance having the great fortune to visit Serge Hochar and Chateau Musar in Lebanon, and by a forthcoming Musar evening at the excellent Parkers Arms in Newton in Bowland, I've realised I have never published my notes from an exceptional tasting of Musar, hosted by Serge Hochar, with assistance from Steven Spurrier and the late John Avery.

The tasting was held at the London International Wine Fair in May 2009, and was a rare opportunity to meet Serge Hochar in this country and taste through some exceptional, and exceptionally mature vintages of his wines.

Wines have been made in Lebanon for centuries, if not millennia.  But the story of Chateau Musar begins in 1930 when Serge's father, Gaston Hochar (pronounced Hoe-shar) planted his first vines in the Bekaa Valley. 

The Bekaa Valley lies further south than vineyards of France and Spain, but the hot sunny conditions are tempered by the altitude, with the Musar vineyards lying around 1000 metres above sea level.  The vineyards for the red wines are located towards the southern end of the Bekaa Valley, north of Lake Quaroun, about 30km south-east of Beirut.  The main red varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan.  The indigenous white varieties, Obaideh and Merwah, are planted at higher altitudes on the mountain slopes, up to 1500 metres above sea level.

Unusually the winery is not located near the vineyards, but around two and a half hours' drive away.  Apparently this is because, when Gaston Hochar established Chateau Musar in 1930, the boundaries of Lebanon were not yet formally agreed, but he wanted to make sure that the winery would be within the new country of Lebanon.  As a result, the winery was built in the family's 18th century castle, overlooking the Mediterranean at Ghazir, about 25km north of Beirut.  The name "Musar" comes from the Arabic name of the place, M'zar.

As the company expanded, new cellars were built into the mountainside nearby.  These deep cellars not only provide good conditions for maturing wine (as is evidenced by the ready availability - at a cost - of many older vintages of Musar), but also were so solid and secure that they were used by the villagers of Ghazir as air raid shelters during Lebanon's long civil war.  Musar has gained a mystique all of its own from the fact that during the 15 years of civil war (between 1975 and 1990), only one harvest was missed (1976), with grapes being picked under shell-fire.  The 1984 vintage has never been released: war had prevented the grapes being pick in late August (the usual picking time), and the harvest was not completed till October!

Chateau Musar red is made from cabernet sauvignon, carignan and cinsault: according to Serge, the cabernet forms the backbone of Musar, the carignan the meat, and the cinsault forms the skin.  The wines are fermented in cement vats, racked after about six months and then aged for around a year in French oak.  The different varieties are then blended to reflect the strengths and characteristics of the vintage (which in practice means that Chateau Musar can vary enormously in style from year to year) and is bottled, unfiltered, at the end of the third year after harvest. The wine is then aged for a further three or four years in bottle before being released for sale.

Red Musar has almost cult proportions, which is odd in a wine that is inherently so inconsistent, and often laden with things such as volatile acidity and brettanomyces, that elsewhere are regarded as faults.  In some years, it can be positively Burgundian in style, in other years more Bordeaux or Rhone-like. But there's always that little air of wildness and danger in it.

If the red Chateau Musar can be unusual, the white version is on first acquaintance positively weird.  It's made from the indigenous varieties obaideh and merweh and is a white wine that is best drunk at room temperature.  It ages magnificently.  If forced to say what it's like, the nearest I could possibly come up with would be aged, slightly oxidised white Rhône.  But it's not really like that.

Serge Hochar is a writer's dream.  He is a salesman, a winemaker (though the actual winemaking is now left to others) and something of a Yoda in his pronouncements, which can be at once forthright and cryptic. Asked about perceived faults in his wines, for example, he simply replied "I like brett, and volatile acidity helps my wine to age."

The Wines

2002 Chateau Musar
There's bright cherry fruit on the nose, and then lovely, bright fruit on the attack. Then you feel some fine-grained tannins. Then a sort of dishwater thinness on the middle, before returning to full power on the finish. 89/100

1993 Chateau Musar
There's lovely, earthy red fruit on the nose, which is very warm and inviting, with a slight hint of orange peel.
Lovely palate: very open and inviting with warm fruit. There's some very good elegance here. Nice sweet, slightly raisined fruit characters come along towards the finish. Enormous length. 91/100

1977 Chateau Musar
Old furniture and boot polish on the nose. A very mature feel on the attack, but it becomes younger as you hold it in the mouth. Very balanced with scarcely any noticeable alcohol. This is really nice. There's a lot of character here, but no excess VA etc. In fact there's not much noticeable VA at all. Towards the finish, it feels like it's drying out a little. 91/100
Coming back to it after the 1969, there's a hint of raspberry jam on the palate, and it's really developing in the mouth and becoming much more lively. 93/100
1969 Chateau Musar
On the nose this is much young and fresher than the 1977. There are soft, mature red fruits; warm, gentle, woody spice and a faint hint of curry.
Superb palate. Evolved, mature, but with a lovely red fruit freshness. There's a good tannic structure still persisting. It lingers in the mouth for ages. Much more youthful than the 1977.
Returning to it after a little time, the tannins seem more evident. 94/100
1959 Chateau Musar
This was Serge Hochar's first vintage as winemaker and so also not really the Musar that Serge wanted to make: he reckons it took him until 1977 to finalise the "formula" for his red wines. 
It has a mature, browning colour.  The nose is mature, with polished oak furniture. After aeration, some raspberry and strawberry fruit become evident.
The palate is notably mature, no doubt, and the attack reminds me of old wardrobe doors with nice, sweet, evolved fruit. But there's also a certain vibrancy in there. Some sweet, remarkably young-feeling fruit comes along. There's a streak of really pure, fresh fruit in there. Remarkable wine. Very complex flavours.
I reckon there is still enough structure to see this through a couple more decades.
Serge called up Steven Spurrier and John Avery to help him describe it: Spurrier describes it as a "non-facelifted, non-botoxed fifty year old wine", while Avery reckons it reminds him of a madeira, without fortification. Hmmm ... In complexity, maybe, but I don't find any maderisation. 96/100


2003 Chateau Musar Blanc
On the nose, there are candied almonds and roast orange peel; slightly waxy feel. Remarkably fresh palate, with some lovely, fresh, red fruits in the mouth. Totally blind, you could easily guess this was pinot noir, though admittedly an avoidable one. This is nowhere near ready to drink yet (apparently it was only released for sale 2 days previously). Serge reckons it will start drinking in 2023! 88/100
1989 Chateau Musar Blanc
According to Serge Hochar, this is the youngest white Musar that's currently ready to drink. It's got a rather more waxy nose than the 2003, with some butter and some citrus. Lovely, fresh palate, with a delicious savoury edge. Pretty indescribable.
Serge called on Steven Spurrier to help him describe it, but it defeated Spurrier.
"This wine is made for gods, it's not made for humanity" said Serge, though I think he'd be quite happy for lots of humanity to buy it. 91/100

In addition to the Chateau Musar 'grands vins' (of which there is an occasional rosé, which blends red and white wines in the manner of some champagnes, rather than the more usual rosé de saignée method of making rosé wines, which merely involves minimising skin contact), Musar have also started producing a number of lesser wines.  To my mind, these are not the real Musar, and tend to be more international, and more consistent in style. 
The closest in style to Chateau Musar are the Hochar Père et Fils reds.  There is a range called Mosaic that is intended for the on-trade, and another new-ish range of red, white and rosé wines made for immediate drinking, without any exposure to oak in the winemaking process: these are variously called Musar Cuvée or Musar Jeune.