The Greatest Wine You’ve Never Heard of?
Could it be Chateau Musar, Lebanon's little secret?
In my continuing coverage from this year’s prowein, additional information on which can be found here. I follow up today with a brief peek at one of the world’s greatest wineries, and certainly the greatest wine of Lebanon. You know who I’m talking about.
Of course it is Chateau Musar and their true story of commitment and perseverance. Located in the Bekaa valley, Musar and the Hochar family that own it have made wine in times of peace, and amidst the gunfire of war. While this verdant valley on the eastern side of lebanon has seen tumultuous times over the recent decades, Musar has been a winery of remarkable stability. My experience with their wines goes back to the 1977 vintage, enjoyed many times over the years, and as far back as the 1967 clandestinely poured from under Serge Hochar’s jacket at a large wine tasting held in NYC back in about 1985. As I found out on this day, that is not a rare occurrence.
It’s difficult to describe Musar’s red wines, though their white can be compared to some obscure wines. A bit like a white Rhone crossed with Tondonia Blanco and with a bit more VA. That might be a turnoff to some, but is more likely simply indecipherable to most. Let’s just say that you have to try these wines to understand them, they sort of defy wine criticism in the modern sense of the word, as might be expected of a wine produced from the ancient and indigenous obaideh and merwah grapes. The one thing to be aware of is the fact that the whites love age, and show better as they get older. Counterintuitive yes, but what isn’t when it comes to Musar?
Could it be the red? Absolutely not. Simply made, Chateau Musar is absolutely one of the world’s greatest chameleons. Produced from an ever changing blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan, Musar’s flagship wine is like the proverbial box of chocolates each year. Sometimes dry, other’s with a touch of sweetness, varying levels of VA, some mysterious aromatics in their youth. They, like their white counterparts, tend to blossom at about age 10 and move from strength to strength thereafter.
Musar’s portfolio of wines has expended over the years to include new blends under the Jeune and Hochar labels. Less expensive, and more immediate that the traditional Musar wines, these serve as intriguing counterpoints to the arch traditional, and increasingly expensive Chateau wines. Fresher, fruitier, and yes less expensive, these are wines that prove the viability of Lebanon as a wine producing region, relying not ont he quirky and historic but rather on the fundamentals of success: broad appeal and the bottom line.
I do prefer the classic wines, have many of them in my cellar in fact, but can’t deny the appeal of something different to add to the Musar portfolio. I had the thrill of tasting all of these wines at the prowein stand of Musar, and while the reps poured the wines at first it was not long before I was joined by the winemaker Tarek Sakr for a discussion of what it is like to grow grapes in Lebanon - “Why trellis in a sunny country. You need shade!” - and then finally Serge himself, ever spry and enthusiastic. You can tell that not only does Serve love to talk about his wines, after all a life’s work and adventure, but he also loves to meet people you derive pleasure from his wines. It’s a fair deal if you ask me. I, as the deriver, got the best of the deal one would think.
Back in the day, I’m talking roughly of the mid to late 1980s, you really couldn’t give Musar away. Things were much simpler then. There were no wine blogs turning you on to cool new things and announcing the arrival of geek wines from all corners of the earth. Wine shops bought wines, and then had to sell them to their public As an ex-wine retailer let me tell you that it is much easier to sell a $20 California cabernet than some $15 Lebanese red blend. Today that is of course changing, with current vintages of Chateau Musar selling in the mid $40 range for current releases, while I was picking up the 1977 and 1980-1983 vintages for a few dollars back in that day.
I drank them all, down to my last bottle of both the 1977 and 1980 if cellar inventory is to be trusted. Today those wines retail for close to $300 a bottle. My how times have changed. People are catching on to the beauty of Chateau Musar. Maybe you should as well? The Jeune and Hochar are widely distributed, and while they don’t deliver the Musar fully monty experience, they do serve to let you know that you should know more about Chateau Musar.