Chateau Musar's vineyards are located in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and that statement is in and of itself a testament to the grit and determination of Serge Hochar. You have heard of conflict diamonds; these are "despite-conflict" wines.
The Bekaa Valley is a 75-mile (65-km) long, 10-mile (16 km) wide, 3000-feet (1000 m) high strip of land located about 19 miles (30 km) east of Beirut between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountains (which serve as shields against the deserts to the east and the rains from the west). The valley experiences long, gentle summers, wet winters, and 240 days of sunshine annually and is well irrigated by the waters that flow from the mountain peaks. The soils of the region are primarily clay limestone.
Chateau Musar's red and white wine grapes are grown in distinctly separate environments. The red wine grapes -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and Carignan -- are planted in the southern portion of the Bekaa Valley on soils that are gravel over limestone. These old vines yield between 30 and 35 hl/ha. The white varieties are the indigenous Obaideh and Merwah which are planted in high-altitude (1500 m ) vineyards. Grape growing is organic and, at harvest, the berries are hand-picked by Bedouin tribespeople and trucked over the mountain to the winery which is 2.5 hours removed.
Grapes for the red wines are fermented by varietal in cement vats and then racked into French oak barriques after 6 months (In the tasting, Serge indicated that he had tried stainless steel fermentation but that it had "destroyed" the wines. He now uses stainless steel for some of the younger-generation wines but exclusively uses concrete for the Hochar and Musar wines.). The barrique wines are blended after 12 months of initial residence and then returned to the barriques for an additional 12 months. The mature wine is then bottled unfiltered and aged for 3 - 4 years before being released to the market.
The white wines are fermented in French oak for 6 - 9 months before blending and bottling and are then stored in the Musar cellars for an additional 6 years prior to market release.
Now back to the tasting. The wines were tasted in the order presented below and, surprisingly to me, we tasted the reds prior to the whites. Serge said that we would understand the ordering in due time. The tasting was called to order by Brian Koziol MS of Stacole and he then turned the microphone over to Serge after a brief introduction. Serge made a few remarks and then proceeded to walk us through the wines.
The 2009 Hochar exhibited plum and berry characteristics along with minty herbal notes and an earthy minerality. The wine was brisk and persistent with red pepper tones and a long finish. Serge said that this wine was simpler when compared to the Chateau Musar because it was designed to be more approachable. He called it his "fruit juice" wine.
The 2005 Chateau Musar is a blend (as are all Musars) of 1/3 each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, and Cinsault. According to Serge, it took him 17 years of trial and error to come up with the final blend. In relating the wine to a human, he sees the Cabernet Sauvignon as the skeleton, the Carignan as the flesh and muscles, and the Cinsault as the skin. The wine had notes of jasmine, plum, and mints to go along with an herbaceousness and a flinty-stony minerality. This medium-bodied wine was bright with supple tannins and a richness and persistence that was apparent on both the palate and the finish.
The 2002 Chateau Musar was redolent with jammy berry flavors along with mint, eucalyptus, pepper, coffee, smoke, and petrol. Firm, drying tannins with medium body and excellent length of finish.
The 1999 Chateau Musar showed cherries and strawberries along with mint, cedar, truffle, and mushrooms. This medium-bodied wine had elements of rust on the palate and is balanced with a long finish. This wine needs more time. Serge said that his wines can be drunk after 15 years but require a minimum of 25 years to be truly enjoyable.
The final red was the 1977 Chateau Musar. This wine exhibited dark fruits, pineapple, tarragon and mint. It had tar notes reminiscent of a Barolo. Additional aromas included blackpepper, iodine, coffee, dried blood, and iron. The finish was moderate in length and the wine appeared tired to this taster.
The first white tasted was the Blanc 1998. This wine had a golden color and, validating Serge's decision re the tasting order, was more powerful than any of the reds. This wine exhibited citrus, stone fruit, fresh herbs, tea, thyme, honey, beeswax, white pepper, and a certain nuttiness. Vibrancy on the palate. Racy acidity with some structure and a long, thin finish. This wine, believe it or not, still needs time. The nose started out with faint aromatics but gained complexity in the glass.
The Blanc 2000 had a floral component but was more endowd with rust, stone, and white pepper. Grippy green tannins accompany a moderate length finish.
The Blanc 2004 had similar characteristics to the 2000 except for additional citrus and grassy notes. This wine was lighter in body than the prior two, was metallic on the palate, and had a short, drying finish. This wine is unimpressive at this time but, given the characteristics of Hochar wines, may need more time in bottle to reveal its swan-ness.
There was much more variation around the red wines once you got beyond consistent mint and spice characteristics. Some exhibited red fruit, some black, and some both. There were distinct mineral elements ranging from flinty to stony to earth. The wines north of 1999 need more time in bottle. There was consistency in the whites with vintage-related amplification. All of these wines are long-lived.
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