Saturday, 6 November 2010

Musarathon - 30 years of Chateau Musar. Is this the best £10 I 've ever spent?

I've been a fan of Chateau Musar for almost as long as I've been indulging my passion for wine. So it was an honour to be present at this week's tasting at the Nottingham Wine Circle, presented by the ever-generous Doug Miles (with significant contributions from David Selby and CY Choong). Tradition dictates that the cost of such a tasting is shared between the members present, and is based not on what the wines are worth now, but what they cost at the time they were purchased. And so it came to pass that the 15 or so members present at this tasting were required to cough-up the princely sum of £10 each, for the privilege of tasting no less than 16 different Musar wines, going back to the 1978 vintage. I shudder to think what those wines would cost on the open market now, but they don't come cheap, I can tell you. So thanks, boys, for the chance to taste such a brilliant vertical, at the price of a couple of supermarket BOGOF's!

For the uninitiated, Chateau Musar is (for those with impeccable taste) the greatest wine of Lebanon. The winery was established in 1930 by Gaston Hochar, at the Castle of Mzar, north of Beirut. The grapes are grown high up in the Bekaa Valley, 50km to the east. Gaston's son Serge took over the winemaking in 1959 and proceeded to establish its reputation as one of the world's most inimitable (and inherantly quirky) wines. The grapes are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, with Cinsault and Carignan making up the blend. Each variety is fermented in concrete vats, then transferred to large vats for a year, before being aged for a year in French oak barrels. Then they go back into vats for up to 3 years, before the final blending takes place. The finished wine is finally bottled (with no fining and the minimum of filtering) after around 5 or 6 years, and generally released for sale at around 7 years of age. By which time it has only really just begun its evolution.

Oz Clarke describes the wine thus, in his book New Classic Wines;
"Many experts have struggled to catch the essence of Musar by describing it as a cross between Bordeaux and Burgundy. It is nothing of the sort. It is far too wild, far too exotic for Bordeaux....... and it has none of the fragrant delicacy which marks out Burgundy. It is proudly Lebanese.......... The smell of a mature Musar seems deep and old and sweet, sometimes as intense as burnt raspberry sauce scraped from the pan, sometimes thick with dark syrup of black cherries steeped in brandy, sometimes with the sweet sourness of sublime vinegars, sometimes a yeastiness as heady as fresh brioche, and often wafted through with the scent of cedar. The flavour generally seems oxidised at first, and paradoxically, if you taste Musar too young, you're certain it can't last. But that's part of the magic. The young wines show too much age, the old wines show too much fruit."

So to the wines..............

1. Hochar Rosé 2004
A blend of Obaideh and Cinsault. Pale ruby pink. Nose of red cherry and raspberry, with a strong (but not unattractive) vegetal note of beetroot and cabbage, along with strawberries steeped in balsamic vinegar. The palate is less attractive - a bit harsh and lacking structure. A bit too vegetal, with the fruit fading fast, so I guess it is just too old.

2. Musar Jeune 2008
Cinsault, Syrah(?) and Cabernet. Black fruits, funky notes of volatile acidity (VA) and brett. Crystallised fruits, strawberries and cream. Spicy, full, fruity, quite tannic, but with nice acidity. A very decent quaffer.

3. Hochar Pere et Fils 2003
Mostly Cinsault and Cabernet, with some Carignan and Grenache. Smells warm and very ripe, with notes of VA and polished wood. Red fruits, lemon/orange peel and herbs. Light and elegant in the mouth, but with plenty of baked fruit and no harsh tannins. Decent acidity and nice length. Finishes warm and spicy, like a proper Musar from a "light" vintage.

4. Chateau Musar 2002
Orange peel, herbs and spice, old wardrobes and red fruits. Fruity, spicy, light and elegant. An attractive hint of greenness, without feeling underripe. Nice wine, with plenty of room for development.

5. Chateau Musar 2001
Smells sweet, but not funky - and actually with little in the way of VA. Elegant aromas and flavours of redcurrant and strawberry and crystallised fruits. The palate is amazingly clean and elegant, almost like a fine, aged Bordeaux, or even Burgundy. In fact, it is quite atypical for Musar, but very lovely and very balanced.

6. Chateau Musar 1999
Another very elegant nose, with sweet fruit aromas, cigar box/cedar and hints of savoury/meat stock. The palate is rich and fruity, and nicely spicy, with great poise. Classic Musar baked fruit - cassis, cherry and raspberry by the bucketload. Some nice notes of citrus and toffee add further complexity. It is rich, yet elegant, and so lovely - shades of a fine Chateauneuf (Clos des Papes, for instance) or even Burgundy.

7. Chateau Musar 1998
Somebody mentioned barbeque sauce - and there is a bit of that here, along with notes of beetroot, citrus and a touch of VA. The palate is lovely - citrus and spice, wild strawberries and fermenting bramble fruits. Warm and spicy, polished wood and leather. Long and spicy and very attractive.

8. Chateau Musar 1997
Another really lovely nose of VA and red fruits. The palate is quite warm - even a touch alcoholic - and the fruit seems (for the moment, at least) to be a bit lacking. Perhaps this is in a closed phase, with the nose showing more elegance than the palate. Nevertheless, it is identifiably Musar, and therefore a nice drink!

9. Chateau Musar 1994
What a lovely nose! This has sweet red and black fruits galore, with hints of meat and leather and a healthy dose of VA - the quintessential Musar! The palate is equally lovely ,with bags of fruit, soft tannins, and really nice acidity (and VA). This is the second time I've used the Burgundy comparison, but - for me - this wine definitely has that feel, in the way it combines sweet fruit and subtle elegance. A lovely wine, though some preferred..........

10. Chateau Musar 1993
This one, on the other hand, smells like a perfectly aged Bordeaux, with the Cabernet dominating. Aromas of cassis and cigar box/cedar, leather and gravy. The palate is rich with fruit - even dense - but still exudes elegance and charm. And, whilst the 1994 is lovely, this one is indeed a better and more complete wine. It simply caresses the palate with its velvety softness, yet there is huge complexity and immense depth (and length) of flavour. A fabulous wine.

11. Chateau Musar 1991
This is a case of "After the Lord Mayor's Show" - or, for non-British readers who haven't a clue what I'm talking about - a big disappointment after the preceding two wines. I have enjoyed several bottles of the (very highly-rated) 1991, ranging from good to sublime, but this wasn't one of them. And a bottle consumed at a dinner a few weeks ago was good, if unspectacular. Which begs the question, have I/we been unlucky with those two in a row, or is the 1991 fading fast? I hope it is the former, because I still have a couple of bottles left. This wasn't a bd wine (or even any more "faulty" than your average Musar), but it just didn't have any kind of "Wow factor".

12. Chateau Musar 1990
On the other hand, this is far superior to a particularly stinky/oxidised bottle of 1990 we drank at the same dinner recently. It still smells quite old, but isn't falling apart or dirty. It has plenty of crystallised fruit flavours, but is ultimately a bit short and simple.

13. Chateau Musar 1983
A jammy, rich fruitcake nose. Earthy, almost flinty and smoky, with some meaty nuances. It is sweet on the palate. Some think it is oxidised and past it, whilst I think it is rather attractive - but then again, I love these old wines which, for all their faults, still exhibit some real fruit qualities. In fact, I don't think it has reached the end of the line yet.

14. Chateau Musar 1981
This, on the other hand, is bang on the money and still full of vibrant life. What a truly elegant nose! And, for the first time in this tasting, we were comparing it to a fine northern Rhone wine. There is a bit of VA, but but lots of fine fruit, savoury and spice, with complex notes of balsamic vinegar, preserved fruits, bacon and lilies. And the palate certainly lives up to the promise, combining density with elegance. At 29 years of age, the flavours are edging towards the tertiary, but there is still more than enough fruit to keep you interested, with fully resolved tannins and fabulous balancing acidity. It is very together, very sexy and very lovely. This vintage of Musar (along with the 1979 and 1980) was amongst my first real "Road to Damascus" experiences, when I first started to buy serious wines. It demonstrated to me, in the most glorious way, that wine can - indeed should - be so much more than a mere beverage. It was a great wine then, and I am thrilled to find that, a good 20+ years after I first enjoyed it, it is still a great wine. Utterly fabulous, and worth the £10 admission fee on its own!

15. Chateau Musar 1980
This one hasn't fared so well, unfortunately. It is a touch cabbagey and mushroomy - just a bit old and oxidised. There is still some soft, almost sweet fruit and some trademark VA, but it also seems a touch madeirised and tired. That said, it is still quite attractive, but has far less interest than the 1981, and suffers in comparison.

16. Chateau Musar 1978
Smells a bit like a really fine old Chateauneuf du Pape. It is floral and fruity, with notes of beef stock and polished wood. And the palate shows a glorious array of fruit, spice, savoury and earthy flavours. It is soft, superbly balanced and beautifully elegant, in a quintessentially Musar sort of way. In fact, if Oz Clarke never saw "fragrant delicacy" in Musar, he wasn't drinking anything old enough! This is a lovely old dame of a wine, and a fine way to finish a fabulous tasting.

Overall (and with only a couple of exceptions) these wines ranged from very good to sublime, and all points inbetween, and we experienced all of the glories and all of the quirks of Chateau Musar in equal measure. For me, the wine of the night was the 1981, followed closely by the 1978 and 1993. Amongst the "older" wines, the 1994 also deserves a mention, whilst amongst the "younger" wines, 1998, 1999 and 2001 show great promise.

Thanks Doug, David and CY for your unceasing generosity - and please let's do it all again sometime!


Alan Smeaton said...

Nice notes Leon. Funnily enough we are just about to go out for Sunday lunch at Cafe 21 and I'm taking a bottle of the Musar Jeune with me. We drank 2002 Musar a couple of weeks ago and I thought it was rather good - it will be interesting to see how it develops.

Our local wine merchant sells the Massaya wines from Lebanon and I've been quite pleased with those I have tried.

Leon Stolarski said...

I didn't know you were a Musar fan, Alan. The Musar Jeune should go very nicely with food - let me know how you get on with it. I've not had much experience of Massaya, although I think I tasted one recently. I'll try and search out my note.

AlanM said...

Just bought a couple of bottles of Musar 2003 in the 25% off sale at a supermarket. Any experiences?

Alan, good to hear from you, went to Bouchon last night, they are in good form at present. There was a Daumas Gassac tasting there with the Guibert son. Unfortunately, I was already booked in for the evening with another party so missed it :-(

Anonymous said...

In two hours i will be doing a vertical tasting on Musar with none other than Mr Serge Hochar in the Park Hyatt in Shanghai. Funny, i googled your notes from just two days a go!! I will ceratinly keep an eye out on those recommended vintages. Ill let you know my thoughts later...its free by the way but not sure any pre-90's wines are on showcase!! (rob)