Chateau Musar embodies many things that I love in a wine/producer. First, it’s interesting and unusual. Second, it’s excellent. Third, it has class. Join me for a bottle and I’ll tell you what I mean on all three counts.
The wine today is the Chateau Musar Red 2002. If you only know one thing about Chateau Musar, it will be that it is Lebanese. If you don’t know the wine, I highly recommend you stop reading right now, find a bottle, and give it a try. It’s neither an Old World wine nor a New, and it’s not trying to be either. It’s Chateau Musar, which is weird, quirky, and above all, unique.
Chateau Musar is a family run producer based in Ghazir, 15 miles north of Beirut. Founded by Gaston Hochar in 1930, it has now passed to his two sons: Serge who is the winemaker and Ronald who manages the business. Based out of an 18th century castle, their grapes are from the Bekaa Valley some 25 miles east of Beirut. In the same way that vignerons talk about vines producing better wine if they’re stressed or planted in soil that forces them to drive their roots deep, I think the wine trade as a whole has a sense of reverence regarding Chateau Musar’s production. Lebanon, particularly in the vicinity of Beirut, is not the most accommodating area in which to grow grapes or produce wine. The distance between winery and vineyard is not insurmountable, though the local transport infrastructure is only a minor concern when compared to the regional conflicts that spring up. However, only two vintages have been cancelled due to wars, though a third was declassified as not up to standard.
The Bekaa Valley, heart of Lebanese wine production, was historically known as a breadbasket when the region was under Roman rule, and remains the most important agricultural region in Lebanon. It features a Mediterranean climate, with wet cold (and sometimes snowy) winters, with warm, dry summers. The soil has a limestone base, covered in gravel and rich in iron, and the average altitude of vines is 1000m.
Lebanon does not get much international attention as a wine region, and when it does, it’s almost always in the context of someone writing about Chateau Musar. However, winemaking in the region has been dated to the Bronze Age, and there are contemporary wineries that pre-date Chateau Musar, including Chateau Ksara, founded in 1857 by French Jesuit priests and Chateau Nakad founded in 1923.
The region as a whole has a strong connection with France, and Chateau Musar is no exception. Gaston Hochar spent time in Bordeaux prior to planting his first vineyard in Lebanon, and befriended Major Ronald Barton (of Château Langoa-Barton – a Saint-Julien Third Growth) while he was stationed in Lebanon during World War II. Serge did his winemaking studies at the University of Oenology in Bordeaux.
One could be forgiven for thinking that such influences would result in yet another Bordeaux-style red wine. And while this wine is a blend of which Cabernet Sauvignon is often a major component, this is not a Bourdeaux blend in recipe or in spirit. Carignan and Cinsault, grapes found in France but much more commonly in Languedoc-Roussillon than in Bordeaux, are the other major components.
The grapes are hand-picked, fermented with ambient yeast in concrete, and then stored in inert wooden vats for a year before spending a year in French oak, and then further years in vats. Very little sulphur is used, and the wines are neither fined nor filtered.
A blend of grapes not historically found together in France, handled in a slightly unusual way – that really doesn’t do justice to the style of Chateau Musar Red. The quality most commonly associated with it is one of volatile acidity. This can give the wine an acetone or nail varnish remover aroma, which is not considered a good thing by everyone who encounters it. In some other wines, or in high concentration, it is generally considered a fault. Like brettanomyces, some people see it as a sign of sloppy winemaking, while others enjoy the complexity it lends in small amounts. I’m not enough of an expert to know if it’s microbial instability in the form of acetic acid bacteria due to oxygenation, a reflection of their specific terroir, or if it’s something else entirely. What is clear though is that it is part of the house style, not a fault. It’s absolutely not to everyone’s taste, but it the Chateau Musar style and they remain true to it.
They also make a number of other wines, with a white and a rosé in their Chateau Musar line, a single vineyard red under the Hochar Père et Fils brand, and a series of red, white and rosé wines from younger vines released in a fruitier, drink-now style under the Musar Jeune brand.
This wine threw very little deposit despite being ten years old, unfined and unfiltered, in addition to having been stood up for three days. However, out of those ten years, less than seven were spent in bottle. The colour was medium garnet, with a particularly rich colour. Their notes call it blood red, which I would not dispute. The nose was clean with ripe fruit – cherries and plums – as well as fresh tobacco and sweet spice. It had a medium plus intensity and was still developing. The palate had sharp acidity, with tart cranberries being the dominant fruit. The tannins were velvety and soft but abundant. Plums, cherries, coffee, and chocolate were present in the very full flavour profile. The alcohol provided palate weight, but was only a supporting character. The length was fairly long, with chocolate on the finish.
This is an excellent wine, and I enjoyed it to the last drop. There was something different about it that I don’t think I can quite capture, but to my nose and palate that just made it more interesting.
Finally a word about why I think Chateau Musar is a class act. In 1984, Decanter Magazine in London nominated Serge Hochar as their first “Man of the Year” for his work at producing quality wines despite the civil war that raged through Lebanon. Every year since, Chateau Musar has bought ad space in the annual “Man of the Year” issue congratulating each subsequent winner.
Pin in map is their office address in Beirut, as I couldn’t find the ’Mzar’ castle in Ghazir.