Chateau Musar

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A little over two years ago, in the Spring of 2019, I had the great pleasure of attending a lunch with Marc Hochar from Chateau Musar, Lebanon's most recognized and historic winery. I accepted the invitation because I knew the opportunity was rare to learn about the winery from one of the descendants of the founder, Gaston Hochar, and because I had only pulled the wines for customers at Chambers Street and had never actually tasted a Musar wine, red or white. I had always affiliated Chateau Musar wines with Bordeaux - an association that was not unfounded, as Musar uses Bordeaux bottles for their wines, and there is a long history of exchange and influence going back to Gaston's studies in Bordeaux before founding Chateau Musar, his friendship with Roland Barton (of Leoville Barton) during World War II (when Major Barton was stationed in Lebanon), and the studies of his son, Serge Hochar, in Bordeaux in the 60s. Due to this affiliation, I assumed that like many modern Bordeaux estates, Chateau Musar was probably farming with the use of chemical products, pesticides and herbicides, and adding an average level of sulfur to the wines before bottling. When I asked Marc Hochar about farming and sulfur use, I was amazed to find that my assumptions couldn't have been farther from the truth! It turns out that Musar has never sprayed pesticides or herbicides since their founding in 1930, all their wines are fermented with native yeast, and minimul sulphur is used, with the Chateau Musar Rouge receiving on average 19ppm of SO2 before bottling. In fact, the Chateau Rouge wines from the 60s and 70s had no addition of sulfur whatsoever. Though it wouldn’t influence my analysis of the wine’s aromas or palate, it was nonetheless a great discovery for me, as we try very hard at Chambers Street Wines to champion wines made in the most low-intervention, and natural way possible.

Vintage photo of Bekaa Valley (courtesy of Chateau Musar)

The history of Chateau Musar begins with Gaston Hochar’s founding of the winery in 1930, in the family’s chateau, overlooking the Mediterannean, north of Beirut. Prior to 1930, Gaston had traveled through Bordeaux and been inspired by the wines, so it’s safe to assume that the choice to plant Cabernet Sauvignon was influenced by his travels. Cinsault and Carignan, which make up the rest of the red varieties in the Chateau Musar rouge, were already found in Lebanon, with the arrival of Cinsault (and likely Carignan as well) tracing back to Jesuit monks who brought vines from Algeria to the fertile Bekaa Valley. The area itself has a much longer history than this, starting with ancient Phoenicians who began cultivating vines in the Bekaa Valley from around 4,500BC.

Part of the temple complex in Baalbek

A temple in the ancient city of Baalbek is dedicated to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and the regions wines are mentioned multiple times in the Bible. The Bekaa Valley forms part of the fertile crescent, and the specific plateau of the Bekaa Valley, bordered by mountains, was  perfect for viticulture. Phoenicians spread viticulture from here to Egypt, Greece, Italy and Spain between 2,500 and 500BC.

All of Chateau Musar's vines are located in the southern part of the Bekaa Valley, with Mount Lebanon to the west, and the the Anti-Lebanon or Eastern Lebanon mountains to the east, with the snow capped Mount Hebron their highest point. The climate is quite dry, with an average of 300 days of sunshine. Vineyards here are further south than the southernmost parts of Spain and Italy, so altitude is essential due to the amount of heat there. Luckily, due to the high altitude of the mountains surrounding the Bekaa Valley, conditions are ideal for vines, with cool nights balancing the hot and sunny days.

Musar's red vines are about 1000m above sea level on the slopes of the western mountain range. Whites are planted at higher elevation in the eastern Lebanon mountains, and the oldest vines, planted in 1920, are own rooted. Soils are mostly gravel over limestone bedrock.

The Chateau Musar Rouge was the culmination of decades of winemaking at the domaine, with Serge Hochar arriving at the final "formula" in 1977. The wine is always a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and Carignan. Grapes are fermented in cement, racked after 6 months, and aged in mostly used French barrels for a year. After 3 years the wines are blended, and this final blend is bottled and aged an additional 3-4 years. Each Chateau Musar Rouge vintage is released 7 years after the harvest. The Blanc is a blend of 75% Obeideh and 25% Merhaw, with vineyards nestled high in the eastern Anti Lebanon moutnains, at about 1500m altitude. Obeideh was believed to be a clone of Chardonnay, and Merwah a clone of Semillon, but it has been determined that both are indigenous to the Bekaa Valley. The whites are aged for 6-9 months in barrel, and then bottled and aged for 6 years before release.

Though we have included the tasty Jeune Rouge in this offering, the focus is of course on the top wines, the Chateau Musar Rouge and Blanc. Tasting notes here are from the informative website of the domain, and if anyone is interested to read more about the winery, please reach out to office@chambersstwines.com, as we received a wealth of information about the estate that we would be happy to share. Many thanks to Zaan Eksteen from Broadbent Selections, and Marc Hochar from Chateau Musar, for their help with this article.

-Eben Lillie

** PLEASE NOTE:  Wines will arrive on Friday, May 28th, and will be available for delivery or pick up after 5/28 **

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Chateau Musar 1997 Rouge (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

It was the slowest and best fermentation we have ever had at Chateau Musar, especially between the 15th and 30th September with80% of the harvest in the cellar. I tasted the wines on the 18th November. Almost all malolactics were finished and wines lookedready for drinking. Very, very beautiful wines and the white wines are just as beautiful as the reds. All wines are big and perfectlybalanced whatever the cepage – Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Cinsault, Merwah and Obaideh. Definitely a vintage to followvery closely – Serge Hochar, November 1997 

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Chateau Musar 2000 Rouge (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

When tasted in early November 1999, the wines were tannic, concentrated and powerful, but very well balanced. Now at 20 years after the vintage, the 2000 holds on to its primary fruit whilst really starting to reveal the classic Musar identity, balancing out the characteristic sweet spice and desiccated fruit notes with more evolved elements of leather, tar, tobacco and a hint of game. These complex aromas and flavours are lifted with a fresh lick of acidity that will ensure the wine will continue to age gracefully for years to come.  (from Chateau Musar website)

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Chateau Musar 2001 Rouge (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

The harvest began on the 3rd September – one of the earliest start dates on record. The overall crop was reduced by 15% but the grapes were healthy and ripe, not overly tannic or acidic. Fermentation progressed steadily and the malolactic followed easily and naturally as it did in 2000. This vintage is marked by the dominance of the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Carignan over the Cinsault. The wine was fermented in cement vats, aged in French Nevers oak barrels for one year and bottled in the summer of 2004. (from Chateau Musar website)

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Chateau Musar 2003 Rouge (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

Deep ruby in colour, it has a complex, intriguing array of aromas: toasted bread, cigar box, fresh tea, plums and Eastern spices. On the palate, there are mature fruits: plums, figs and cherries with hints of tea leaves and dark chocolate. The wine is intense; the first taste releasing complex notes of currants, cherries and spice, with a hint of game and finishing with a cleansing acidity. Our first indications were that the 2003 vintage would be full-bodied, powerful with great length and 7 years later upon release in 2010, we were proven right: these are the defining characteristics of 2003. (from Chateau Musar website) "I think of the 2003 red as classical Musar, a great vintage for Carignan" - Serge Hochar

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Chateau Musar 2004 Rouge (Bekka Valley, Lebanon)

The vintage we experienced in 2004 only happens on average once in every decade. The winter in Lebanon was fairly consistent with previous years, with snow until March, spring until June, followed by a very mild and gentle summer. Fresh, cool air dominated the summer months which allowed the grapes to mature slowly and steadily. At the very beginning of the 2004 harvest and for two weeks, the grapes had low sugar content with medium acidity. Then suddenly a week long heat-wave changed everything – high sugar content grapes, but again with medium acidity, began to arrive at the winery. This interesting and important experience was like a case study for us, almost as if we were having two different harvests in the same year. //

A deep burgundy color with a nose of mature fruits, plums, cherries, figs, cinnamon and cloves. The aromas follow
through to a palate full of rich black and red fruits – plums and damsons dominate with pomegranate, baked cherries and
Christmas spices. An intensely concentrated powerful vintage with fine smooth tannins and a spicy, warming finish. (notes from Chateau Musar website)

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Chateau Musar 2009 Rouge 1.5L (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

The Cabernet Sauvignon in particular flourished this year, from flowering to dominating the final structure and taste of the wine, this vintage has a deep scarlet colour and a nose of blackberries, Assam tea, dark chocolate and mulled berries. On the palate there are rich black and red fruits, especially blackcurrants, cherries, damsons and figs with warm cinnamon spice and a hint of mint. This vintage is also characterised by a smoky, earthiness. The tannins are well integrated, with good acidity and a long, dry finish. (from Chateau Musar website)

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Musar 2018 Jeune Rouge (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

Musar Jeune Red is an unoaked blend of Cinsault, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from youthful Bekaa Valley vines. Meant for current consumption – within a few years of the harvest – this deeply-coloured, vividly fruity style, first produced in 2007, may yet prove to be a ‘keeper’. Inky-dark, silky-textured and aromatic, with blackcurrant, raspberry and cherry jam flavours and a warm, spicy finish, it has been likened to a fine Roussillon red.  (from Chateau Musar website)  

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Chateau Musar 2000 Blanc (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

A deep yellow, golden colour – vibrant and clear. The nose is at first difficult to understand because it has so many nuances: it is all at once, buttery, toasty, honey, of grilled and caramelised pineapple, lemons, mandarins, almonds, vanilla and even mineral and salty– delicate and complex at the same time. The aromas follow through on to the palate with a touch of butterscotch, figs and oranges. It reminds us of our White 1993 vintage but this year does have its own very specific identity. (from Chateau Musar website)

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Chateau Musar 2003 Blanc (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

Merwah was dominant in 2003, as if it were compensating for its absence due to a hailstorm in 2002, when no Musar White was produced. The defining characteristics are a deeper colour than usual, with greater intensity of aroma and flavour. (from Chateau Musar website)

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Chateau Musar 2006 Blanc (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

The Chateau Musar White 2006 is an immensely appealing honey colour with a nose and palate of orange blossom, honey, toasted bread, almonds and basil. A very well-balanced wine with good fresh lemon acidity and a long finish of citrus leaves, vanilla and honey. The style is reminiscent of a dry Sauternes or a mature white Graves: rich and intensely zesty, with very complex, long-lasting flavours. As such, the wine benefits from decanting and is best served at around 15° C (‘cellar cool’ rather than chilled) with fine foods of similar richness: foie gras, rillettes, duck and spicy Asian dishes, goat cheese, baked apple pie/tarte Tatin. (from Chateau Musar website)  // "The 2006 white has a million lessons to teach us. It’s already showing the infinite layers of aroma that can exist in a wine" - Gaston Hochar

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Chateau Musar 2010 Blanc (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

It is bright lemon in colour with pears, thyme, pine resin and lemongrass on the nose. The palate has an oily character but with zingy lemon acidity on the finish. There are herbs, pine and citrus flavours – a distinctive white vintage with excellent aging potential. Cellared well, it will keep for decades. (from Chateau Musar website)

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