Tuesday, November 23, 2010

So Chateau Musar is natural . . .

I suppose I should have guessed it from its idiosyncratic character but Chateau Musar is a natural wine. In fact judging from the cellars (above and below), I saw on my visit to the winery in the Lebanon last week ‘minimal intervention’ extends to not removing a single cobweb.

The winemaking operation has been certified organic since 2006. The domaine still works with traditional grapes such as Cinsault and Carignan that other wineries have given up on and with indigenous white varieties (see below). “I am addicted to Cinsault - it gives the silkiness and femininity to my wine, Cabernet, the backbone and Carignan the shape and muscles.” said Serge Hochar - a well honed line you feel he’s trotted out more than a few times before.

Yields in his Bekaa valley vineyards are kept low. The vines are unirrigated though with the lack of water this year they haven’t ruled it out for the future. “The soils of the Bekaa give concentration, intensity and a unique aroma. It’s a biodiverse environment with over 200 different kinds of plants.”

They use concrete tanks to ferment the wine “We’ve tried stainless steel but for our palate concrete works best.” No yeast is added. “The yeast is there before us and without us. Like oxygen” says Hochar in a typically elliptical way

After fermentation each variety is aged in Nevers oak then they are blended at the end of the third year after harvest in roughly equal proportions though the blend differs slightly from vintage to vintage. The wine is bottled then aged for a further four years in that cobwebby cellar. Hochar deliberately makes his wine in an oxidative style. “It’s part of the life of the wine. Like acidity it promotes longevity. I like brett (brettanomyces), I like brett - who cares?” he says defiantly.

Sulphur is only added to prevent odium in the vineyard and at bottling - he estimates each bottle contains less than 10mg free sulphur. “We do not fine or filter so the wine tends to throw a sediment after 6-7 years.”

Hochar insisted we kept the wine in our glass as we walked around from one section of the cellar to the other and upstairs to the tasting room, retasting it at every stage. “Wine is never the same - never, never, never ...”

The longevity of Musar rather demolishes the idea that natural wines don’t age. Hochar recommends reds should not be drunk for 15 years. “This is my opinion. I might be wrong . . . ” Actually I think he was spot on. My favourite red of the line-up - and this is not to decry the remarkable 1961 we tasted - was the 1995. Exactly 15 years old.

Chateau Musar Red
‘Chateau Musar makes every effort at producing totally natural wines letting each one develop its own character’ says the website, a warning that every vintage - possibly every bottle - will taste entirely different.

They suggest decanting 30 minutes to two hours before service and leaving them 2-4 weeks to settle after transporting them.

The current release - with still 8 years to go before it’s ready to drink, according to Hochar but already full of rich dark dried fruit flavours - figs and preserved plums. A hot vintage. About £17.99-£18.99

Very sweet, exotic, almost floral, ripe figgy with high acidity - the quality that helps Chateau Musar live ‘forever’ according to Serge Hochar. I picked up the Carignan more in this vintage. Another 3 years to go till it’s ready to drink About £24.95

A classic Musar - slightly funky, silkily sweet, exotic, scented. Cinsault was the dominant grape in this blend. Although the older wines were impressively, fascinatingly complex this was my favourite wine of the line-up. Hard to get hold of. The Wine Society currently charges £50 a bottle.

The following two vintages were selected at random on the basis of the birthdates of two of our party

Nose slightly seaweedy. Leathery (fruit leather) notes on the palate, quite surprisingly spicy. Long finish though slightly faded and dry. Can’t really agree with Serge’s comment that his older vintages ‘are old but do not show signs of age’ in this case

Though faded at the edges still amazingly deep (garnet) in colour. We picked up a succession of flavours - root vegetables, at first, especially beets, sousbois (forest floor), shitake mushrooms, truffles, bacon, smoked Polish sausages, star anise, new leather (this came through after the wine had been exposed to air for a while) old Comté. A remarkable wine which helps to explain why Musar has developed its cult following

Chateau Musar whites
I’ve always had issues with the Musar whites which are a blend of Merwah and Obeideh (ancestors of Semillon and Chasselas respectively. but on this occasion I found them stunning. Possibly I hadn’t tasted an old enough vintage. Or I was so hypnotised by the way Hochar was talking about them I took leave of my critical faculties. “If you open a bottle of white Musar and drink it every day for two weeks it will be better the last day than the first. My biggest wine is my white wine. It ages longer than the red.”

Interestingly these were served at room temperature.

Characteristically waxy with an aroma of cooked apple (compote). Very spicy, high acidity. While more appealing that previous whites I’ve tasted it’s still not particularly rewarding to drink at this age. £16.50 a bottle from the Wine Society. (A few years ago you could have bought it for half that).

Surprisingly rich in colour. Lush, opulent, waxy, nutty, honeyed but with that ever-present acidity. Grilled pineapple and a long spicy finish. Reminded me of Vina Tondonia aged white riojas. (Serge says it reminds him of the 1993 Haut Brion Blanc) Apparently he participated in a tasting of 26 cheeses with the famous French affineur Bernard Antony and this wine went with more than 12 of them. He also suggested it would go with lamb cooked with mint which I can imagine.

Had suffered a fair amount of ullage. Very dark, rich colour. Spectacular nose - truffles, white flowers. Waxy, lanolin-like texture. Almost Sauternes-like, I note then Hochar compares it with Ygrec of d’Yquem) Still amazingly fresh. “Wines of this age can talk for hours” he says, mystically. My favourite white of the line-up

Extraordinarily lush, opulent and rich for its age though more so on the front palate . Slightly thinner on the mid-palate with a slight note of bitterness on the finish. More quince than pineapple. Apparently it goes with caviar. I believe him.

What do you think of Musar. Does it appeal to you or do you think it’s overrated. If you like it what’s your favourite vintage?

To arrange a tasting at Chateau Musar call 00961 9 925056 or 00961 9 925127 or email info@chateaumusar.com.lb.


  1. I really enjoyed the Cuvee blanc 04 from Musar - and I love these whites in general. The more it warms up from the fridge, the better it seems to get; in fact, room temperature is probably ideal.

  2. Was victoria born in 1974, and Timbo in 1961?

  3. Lovely post Fiona, Chateau Musar is a wonderful wine that strangely I would never drink with Lebanese food, I prefer Arak.

    I lived in Lebanon in the mid 70"s and was evacuated in 75 when the civil war started - went back after the Taif Agreement and was then old enough to appreciate this great wine.

  4. Great write up, Fiona. I love 'I like Brett, I like Brett, who cares?'!!


  5. Spot on, Jamie!

    I can imagine drinking the red with some of the Lebanese meat dishes we had like lamb stew with freekeh but agree not with mezze, Dino.

    And thanks, Ben but Hochar himself almost writes the story.

  6. Thank you for the lovely report on one of my favourites! I visited Ch. Musar a few years back and brought back the 1975 and 1990 whites. It was amazing how the 1990 was so young just two years ago that it needed five hours decanting to show its best! And the 1975 felt like it could easily age another three decades.

    Was 2003 really a hot year in the Biqaa-valley? I might have become confused in my notes, but I wrote that it didn't suffer the heat-wave that Europe did; and though it was sunnier and drier than normal it was also a bit cooler than previous four years.

    Otto Nieminen

  7. Had a lot of older Musar (reds) when still living in Belgium and I can share all of your –favorable – comments. A lovely wine in all respects.
    Still one question. What do you mean by “Serge Hochar estimates his bottles contain less than 10 mg of sulphur?”. One does NOT “estimate” a chemical analysis, one just measures the content!
    Short enough?

  8. @Geshtin Although July and August weren't as hot as usual there was a heatwave in May which resulted in a lower than usual yield http://www.chateaumusar.com.lb/english/cave2-harvest.aspx?year=73&id=1

    And I stand rebuked Luc. For 'estimates' read 'says'. Admirably short ;-)

  9. If Mr Hochar is right, and if this also applies to older vintages – I was talking sixties and seventies – this seems to indicate high sulfite levels are NOT a prerequisite for long aging, doesn’t it?

  10. But some oxidation and good natural levels of acidity I suspect are?

  11. You are absolutely right. And this is the point: Musar keeps well, in spite of its low sulfite levels.
    The amount of sulfite you desire/choose/have to add will definitely influence the short term characteristics of your wine. This constitutes the subject of most of the debate in this blog.
    It will probably influence the long term “devenir” of a wine, but only so to a very minute extent. Many other factors will play the main role.
    I’m not an unconditional fan of the « no sulfites at all » option, as you have guessed. But one grief one cannot reasonably direct at this method is of ipso facto « shortening » the life-expectancy of a cuvée.

  12. Excellent report, Fiona. Thank you!

  13. Good stuff Fiona. I really like natural wines and am a massive Musarophile. 1995's in a really good place right now.
    I'm organising a modest Musarathon in a couple of weeks' time in London. If you'd like to come along, let me know!
    Alex Lake

  14. Tempting, Alex . . . when and where?

  15. Good report, but I think you are stretching it too far to say that Musar proves that natural wines can age. It has SO2 added at bottling. 10 ppm free is not high, but the total could be quite high. And it's a red wine with phenolics that will protect. And it's made oxidatively, so there's less to oxidize. You'd be brave to extrapolate to all other natural wines from this.

  16. Well you know much more about this than I do, Jamie (I'm assuming you're Jamie Goode!) so I'm going to bow to your greater expertise. I did suggest though that it was the oxidative style that contributed to Musar's longevity. (And the whites age too). It's obviously far more risky ageing natural wines than commercially made ones though I suspect that the levels of acidity in natural wines like Giboulot's (see earlier post) might help?

  17. Great blog on my favourite wine Fiona. I just wished I was there tasting them with you?