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Château Musar vertical: remarkable wines from the Lebanon
Vertical tasting of the wines of Château Musar, September 2001, La Vigneronne

Recipe for a me-too, stale, pedestrian feature article on Château Musar, one of the most written-about wineries in the world. First, begin by talking about history—how wine making in Lebanon is nothing new (the Phoenicians, the Romans, etc.). Then mention how the winery was founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar in an 18th century castle in Ghazir, 15 miles north of Beirut, and is now run by his sons Serge and Ronald. Next, mention the Lebanon conflict, and talk about harvesting grapes amid gunfire and shelling. Then talk about where the grapes are grown, at an altitude of 1000 m in the Bekaa Valley, and why this is ideal for viticulture. Finally, when it comes to the wines, be effusively flattering. It's been done before hundreds of times, and you'll be relieved to know I'm not about to repeat this formula here (for those unfamiliar with Musar, you can get the background story from www.chateaumusar.com).

This all may seem a little mean spirited. After all, darling of the wine media Serge Hochar has created a legend in Château Musar. These are truly fascinating wines, and I like them. But I would be doing readers a disservice if I didn't mention that there are by conventional standards rather unusual. To my palate the most commonly encountered quirk (I've avoided using the term 'fault'; I don't think its appropriate here) is volatile acidity, perhaps with something strange going on microbially in the background. That doesn't mean I think they are bad wines. I have bought them in the past, and will buy them again in the future. But they are different, and some of their character is almost certainly imparted by the winemaking techniques. Let me use a footballing analogy to explain what I mean. I support Manchester City. They are in many ways a flawed side, but I put up with their failings for two reasons. First of all, they're an interesting team to support; there's hardly ever a dull season. Secondly, and more fundamentally, I just support them. I couldn't change even if I wanted to. I think it's a bit like this with the wines of Château Musar. They're quirky, but they are always interesting, have a loyal following, the prices aren't too high and they have a remarkable capacity for ageing.

Just while I'm at it, I'll add a second gripe. From time to time you see these wines described in the press as Bordeaux-like, or even Burgundy like. They aren't. At all. They're simply unique. The white wine is an oddity, made from the indigenous Obaideh and Merwah grapes and aged for six months in oak. It is supposed to live for ever; apparently the 1969 and 1975 are still doing well. Not a lot of this is produced; typically 600 or so cases. But the red is the wine that we know and love. It's a blend, predominantly of Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon, although often with a bit of Carignan and Syrah, and sometime even some Mourvèdre and Merlot. This is aged for two years in Nevers (French) oak barrels, and then released about five years after the vintage. 

With regard to vintages, the Lebanon has had a troubled recent history, and this has affected the wines in that none was produced in 1976 and 1984. The conflict stopped in 1990, but in 1992 none of the red Château Musar was produced because it was a weak vintage, and the wine was declassified. For purchasing, you'll probably find all the vintages from 1993-1996 for sale at the moment. From these, I'd choose any of the superb 1994, 1995 and 1996. They're each different in style, and which you prefer will probably depend on your palate. Prices should be around £12, and as such I reckon Musar is relatively undervalued for a wine that has such a good track record. I wouldn't be surprised if we see some substantial price hikes in the next year or two, which would be a shame.

1997 Château Musar White
Quite unusual stuff, but pleasant enough. A yellow/gold colour, this has a smoky nose with taut, complex notes of nuts and wax. The old fashioned palate is very savoury: it's a little herby with a touch of lemony fruit (although this is not at all a fruity wine). There are some wood tannins and the acidity is good. Very good (£8.95 La Vigneronne)

1990 Château Musar White
Unfashionable style, but complex and interesting. A deep gold colour, with an attractive, rounded, toasty nose with notes of caramel, wood smoke and oak. Palate is rich and nutty, with some assertive wood tannins and warm alcohol on the finish. A savoury, delicious wine that's decidedly odd, but isn't showing signs of oxidation -- it is still very much alive. Very good/excellent (£9.95 La Vigneronne)

1998 Hochar Père et Fils
Unoaked, this has a rather unusual nose of bright cherry and liquorice, with some herby, rhubarb-like notes. Palate is dominated by primary fruit, with some savoury, almost medicinal notes. Doesn’t really work. Good/very good (£6.95 La Vigneronne))

1996 Château Musar Red
The latest release, launched in October. 1996 is described by Musar as a more elegant year. A deep red colour with a bricking rim. Appealing and expressive 'southern' nose with a pronounced edge. It's only a touch volatile; otherwise it's remarkably clean. The palate is firm and tannic, with some warm, spicy character. Complex and elegant, this is delicious stuff, with potentially a long life ahead of it. It reminds me of a solid Châteauneuf du Pape in character. Very good/excellent (£12.50 La Vigneronne)

1995 Château Musar Red
1995 was a short harvest, reduced by about 30%, but apparently an excellent one for quality. A mature-looking red with a bricking rim. The nose is meaty and savoury, with a baked quality. It's quite volatile and very aromatic, with complex spicy elements. The volatility is evident on the palate, but its quite concentrated with firm tannins and a spicy, alcoholic finish. Plenty of complexity, and may well develop in interesting ways over the next few years. A big wine. Very good/excellent (£12.50 La Vigneronne)

1994 Château Musar Red
From an unusually hot vintage. Warm, open, spicy nose: quite sweetly fruited and powerful. The palate is spicy with sweet fruit (yes, there is fruit here!), notes of tea and herbs, and a spicy, alcoholic finish. The sweet fruit is balanced by the tannins and acidity. Delicious and complex, with great concentration. Very good/excellent (£12.95 La Vigneronne)

1993 Château Musar Red
A lighter style of Musar. Warm, raisined nose of eastern spices, herbs and some leafy notes. Attractive lighter-bodied palate is well balanced, with some tannin and lots of spicy southern-style character. I'd drink this soon rather than hold it. Very good+

1991 Château Musar Red
Quite a clean, spicy, earthy nose showing good complexity. Balanced, firm palate with spice, some tannin and earthy, herby, leathery, tea leaf characters. This is a polished wine that is drinking really well; a more austere style but a very good example of how well Musar can age. Very good/excellent

1982 Château Musar Red
A brick red colour with a browning rim. There's a smoky, roasted character to the nose, along with sweet, spicy, herby notes. The palate is beginning to dry out a little, but shows attractive leathery, tea-like elements with some tannins and spice. Complex stuff, but beginning to develop that 'old wine' taste. I prefer them a bit younger than this, but still it's an interesting savoury wine. Very good+

1970 Château Musar Red
Beautifully evolved with sweet herby aromas and mature leathery notes. The palate is slightly raisined and figgy, with good balance. Interesting stuff, but drink soon as it's just starting to fade. Very good/excellent

see also: Musarathon - an extensive vertical tasting of the wines of Musar featuring vintages from 1966 to 1997

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