Born in 1930, persisting decade after decade through war, ethnic rivalry, and religious opposition, flourishing in the sun-parched lands of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Chateau Musar is a survivor. But more than a survivor, it is a monument to life and the need to savor every moment of it. As second generation co-owner and winemaker Serge Hochar proclaims:
“Since I was young,” he says, “I have always been confronted to try to understand that disturbing complexity called life. Now I believe that I have come to understand life through the wine. When I bring the yeast to the wine, when I see that union and its offspring, I can see that life—more than anything—is an eternal impulse to create. Life wants to live. Life wants to meet with life. Life wants to create more life. That is all there is. That is where the answers to all my questions are. That is where I can look for God.”
Given what he has been through, he can be forgiven the hyperbole. Bombs that miraculously spare his winery, narrow escapes from marauding warlords, his family exiled for their safety—these events have a way of focusing attention on the sheer beauty of something as ephemeral as a glass of wine, for each moment must seem like a rare gift.
Many wineries claim to have a story about overcoming great odds to wrest ambrosia from grapes. In this case it’s not just marketing. Chateau Musar’s wine is legendary in part because of its improbability and the courage required to produce it but, in the glass, it pays glorious tribute to that story. I don’t think I have ever tasted such a focused presentation of urbane elegance and earthy rusticity—think Diana Krall singing country blues.
Thanks to Lindsay at Wine Smarties and the procurement prowess of Protocol Wine Studio, I had a chance to taste several vintages: 1990, 2000, 2002,, 2003, and 2004. Each vintage, to varying degrees, displays the characteristic “sweaty saddles”, leathery nose, set off by lovely floral notes. This wine is a study in how to make the presence of Brettanomyces (a yeast that can produce off flavors) work to the winemaker’s advantage. Considered a flaw by many winemakers who go to great expense to eliminate it from their wines, in the hands of Hochar it adds complexity without ever becoming overwhelming—and we get to experience sweaty saddles without ever hitting the trails.
The well-preserved 1990 vintage gives a whiff of strawberry compote but, in more recent vintages, current-like aromas reminiscent of Left-bank Bordeaux are pronounced along with fig and spice. With more age, of course, mushroom and olive take over. But despite all this earthiness on display, the palate is soft, crushed velvet, with a lingering but relaxed finish, classy and refined. Some years are more tannic than others but great care is taken to keep this wine in balance.
All vintages consist of roughly equal percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and Carignan—an unusual Bordeaux-meets-Rhone blending strategy. This is an old-world style of winemaking that makes no concessions to contemporary trends toward big, young fruit. It spends one year on French Oak and releases are held back 7 years after the vintage date to ensure the wines are in balance. Few wineries ( or any other business for that matter) can afford to hold onto its product for 7 years—a testament to Hochar’s relentless search for transcendent quality.
Although not easy to find, with a case production of about 50,000 it is available in the U.S. There are plenty of options on Wine Searcher with recent vintages available in the $50-$60 range.
Check out this GQ article for more on the past and present of Chateau Musar.Follow @DwightFurrow