'The Lafite of the Lebanon': Chateau MusarFriday, February 8
Musar's story is familiar, but so extraordinary it deserves to be retold often. We remember presenting vintages from the '80s at tastings in the 1990s, and telling the story of how the Lebanese Civil War (1976-1990) had impacted on the estate, with shells frequently flying overhead in the Bekaa Valley. Conflict erupted again in 2006, and today the Valley lies less than 20km from border with Syria, with the threat of Isis activity a concern in recent years.
Despite what must be one of the most (politically) challenging wine making environments in the world, Musar continues to follow the principles low-intervention winemaking principles on which it was founded. The vineyards are certified organic, with fermentation by ambient yeasts. The wines are unfiltered and unfined, and minimal sulphur is used (at one stage, no sulphur was used at all, putting Musar way ahead of its time).
Serge Hochar died in 2015 and his sons Gaston and Marc are now in charge. Marc describes wines from the Bekaa Valley as neither Old World nor New World, but 'Ancient World'. As well as being a useful reminder that grapes have been grown here for 6000 years, this is also helps to understand the style. Bordeaux influences are very intentional - Musar was afterall originally created to supply the French army stationed in Lebanon after WWI with a taste of home. There's also something harder to define, some volatile and animal aromas - particularly old leather in the older wines - which gives them a more visceral quality than either the refined Bordeaux style or a fruit-bomb wines from the New World.
Serge Hochar, who died in 2015
This week we tasted the latest 2016 vintage release of Hochar, often incorrectly thought of as Musar's 'second wine'. In fact it comes from a seperate single vineyard, planted 1000m above the Bekaa Valley. For fun, we tasted the Hochar alongside a similarly priced 2016 Bordeaux, Château Fourcas Dupré, by way of comparison. The structured tannins and delicious fruit purity of the claret were unmistakable, but deciding when to drink such wines can be a tricky balancing act. Hochar, despite a fine acid backbone (presumably helped by growing at altitude) is immediately enjoyable, but still has the firm tannins and structure which make for a well-balanced wine and long ageing potential.
The Bekaa Valley, with snow-capped Anti-Lebanon mountains in the background
Some Grenache in the blend adds high-toned cherry and raspberry aromas to the dense, dark Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon fruit, all wrapped up with 6 months ageing in Nevers French oak barriques. There are Mediterranean notes of fig, dates and thyme, but the structure is very much in the style of a claret. For the price of some of the more affordable Crus Bourgeois, we think this worth adding to your cellar for those occasions when a little extra fruit and warmth are needed.
Barrel cellar at Palais du M'zar, the 17th Century castle, overlooking the Mediterranean
Hochar will age well for many years, but few wines can equal Château Musar itself in their ability to acquire complexity with long cellaring.
Serge Hochar believed each vintage should have its own unique expression, a fundamentally different approach to the Bordeaux Crus Classés, where blending to achieve a consistent style is a key approach. The Château releases tiny quantities of library stocks each year to eke out their reserves and we have selected some of the most interesting to offer, inspired by some recent vertical tastings by Jancis Robinson.
You can see our full offer of Hochar 2016 and Library vintages of Musar here.