Château Musar is the iconic and idiosyncratic wine that is a testament to unsettled history of Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. Our focus today will be on Musar’s distinctive and inimitable white wine.
Lebanon and Château Musar
Lebanon has a long history of wine making dating back dating back 6000 years, with its wines referred to in the Bible when Christ turned water into wine, near its southern part in Tyre. Baalbek, originally devoted to Phoenician fertility god Baal, is also the site of vast Roman temple to wine god Bacchus.
Château Musar was established in 1930 by Gaston Hochar (pronounced Hoe-shar) and has been run by his son Serge Hochar since 1959. Unusally the winery is located two and a half hours away from the vineyards, 25 km north of Beruit in the family’s 18th century castle overlooking the Mediterranean at Ghazir. This is because Gaston wanted to be certain that the winery would be within Lebanese borders, which had not been formally agreed when he established Château Musar in the 1930’s. The name Musar comes from the Arabic for Ghazir, M’zar.
As the winery expanded, deep cellars were cut into nearby mountainside, providing not only great conditions for maturing wine, but air raid shelters for the villagers of Ghazir during Lebanon’s long civil war. Musar gained it’s own unique iconic status having lost only one harvest entirely in 1976, during Lebanon’s 15 year civil war which lasted between 1975 and 1990, with the grapes being picked under shell fire.
There is a tradition amongst wine lovers to seek out bottles from their birth year to drink on significant occasions, but unfortunately for yours truly, 1984 was largely terrible vintage for wines worldwide. True to form the 1984 vintage from Château Musar has never been commercially released, the war having prevented the grapes being picked as normal in late August, so that the harvest was not completed until late October, along with difficulties in transporting the grapes to the winery.
The vineyards lie parallel to the Mediterranean in the Bekaa valley, a historically volatile area in the east of the country on the frontline between Damascus and Beruit. The Bekaa Valley is further south than the vineyards of France and Spain, but it’s hot and sunny conditions are moderated by altitude.
The vineyards for the red wines are around 1000 metres above sea level, located towards the south end of the Bekaa valley, north of Lake Quaroun and 30 km south east of Beruit, and are predominantly planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan. According to Serge Hochar, Cabernet forms the backbone of the wine, Carignan the meat, and Cinsault the skin, giving the wines silkiness and femininity.
The wines are fermented in cement vats then aged in French Nevers oak for a year, before blending the different varieties in proportions that reflect the strengths of the vintage. The wine is then returned to vats for two more years, before bottling unfiltered at the end of the third year after harvest, and ageing three or four years more in bottle before release. Red Musar is an iconic wine, inconsistent and typically troubled by volatile acidity and brettanomyces, which would usually be regarded as faults. Varying widely in style between analogies with Bordeaux and Rhône, some years Burgundian, but always unique and distinctive with a wild and untamed character.
Volatile Acidity (VA) is the measure of the volatile acids in wine that are produced by various yeasts or bacteria that are ubiquitous throughout the vineyard and winery. The two acetic acid bacteria Acetobacter and Gluconobacter are the main culprits that produce these volatile acids, though yeasts such as brettanomyces and lactic acid bacteria can also contribute. These bacteria are ideally adapted for sugar and alcohol rich environments, and their metabolism is aerobic, meaning they need oxygen to grow.
All ripe grapes have acetic acid bacteria on them, but rotten or damaged grapes, associated with wetter growing seasons have particularly high concentrations. When the grape skins are broken, fermentation can start before picking, and in this oxidative environment the acetic acid bacteria break down the alcohol into acetic acid, and can also turn the acetic acid produced into ethyl acetate. Acetic acid is the main acid giving vinegar it’s smell and taste, and Ethyl acetate has an aroma like nail polish or nail polish remover.
Acetic acid bacteria is also common around the winery, so good cleaning and sanitation of equipment, as well as selection to reject poor quality fruit, and managing exposure to oxygen, help ensure that excessive levels of volatile acidity do not develop. While Volatile Acidity is normally considered a wine fault, in small concentrations it can add flavour complexity and lift the wine’s aromas.
Saccharomyces and Brettanomyces are different genus of yeast that are present throughout the vineyard and winery, which both produce alcohol and various chemical compounds. Saccharomyces grow much faster than Brettanomyces so perform the main role in fermenting most wines, however Brettanomyces are much more tolerant to acidity and temperature changes, making them harder to kill off. They also produce various flavour and aroma compounds, ranging from farmyard manure and antiseptic, spice and smoke, to sweaty feet and cheese. In small doses these can contribute complexity and distinctive characteristics, but are mostly unpleasant at greater levels. Consequently most wineries kill off both Saccharomyces and Brettanomyces after picking using sulphur dioxide, inoculating with only Saccharomyces for fermentation, then sterile filtering or using sulphur dioxide again to prevent Brettanomyces developing in the bottle.
While Musar’s red wines are distinctive, the white wines are perhaps even more unconventional and idiosyncratic, slightly oxidative and best at drunk cellar temperature. They are made from ancient indigenous white varieties Obaideh and Merwah, reputedly ancestors of Chardonnay and Semillon, among only 6 indigenous varieties still planted in Lebanon. The phylloxera free, ungrafted vines were planted 50 to 90 years ago at even higher altitudes, on mountain slopes around 1300 metres above sea level. The vineyards are planted on stony, chalky soils in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains near Ain Arab, and on the seaward side of Mount Lebanon in Baqaãta, on calcareous gravels. Hochar claims that an open bottle will continually evolve over a period of days, improving every day for several weeks.
Musar’s winemaking has been certified organic since 2006, and sulphur dioxide is only used very conservatively in the vineyard and at bottling to prevent oxidisation, each bottle containing less than an estimated 10 mg. Vineyard yields are kept low, and have traditionally not been irrigated, though with increasing water shortages this hasn’t been ruled out for the future. Both red, and especially white Musar age superbly, rubbishing the conventional wisdom that natural wines don’t age. Indeed Hochar recommends that the reds should not be drunk until at least 15 years after bottling, and believes that the white is his top wine. The wines are not filtered or fined, so tend to throw a distinct sediment.
Château Musar Blanc 2006
Pale lemon colour, paler than expected given the oxidative aging and oak.
Pronounced and very Sauternes like on the nose. Aromas of pear, quince, syrupy tinned nectarine segments, overripe apricot and yellow apple. Perfumed white floral honeysuckle and pollen, with oak and barley sugar characteristics. Some vaguely Riesling like petroleum hints and oxidative notes.
Pronounced intensity, full bodied, medium plus acidity. Leathery and oaky, with a glossy and coating mouthfeel, though not at all cloying, with plenty of balancing acidity. There’s nuttiness, almond and hazelnut, and distinct but integrated salinity, shellfish, mussel and oyster aromas, even with hints on the palate.
Outstanding, really distinctive and characterful, with complexity and intrigue, like a mongrel cross between an aged white Rioja, Amontillado sherry, and a dry version of Sauternes. Note that Sauternes is made in part from Semillon, reputedly a descendant of Merwah, from which this wine is made, so maybe that’s not such a crazy pronouncement. To decipher, this is a full bodied and rich wine, dry but with a sweet sensation, with restrained oxidative and oak influenced ageing characteristics, that remains thoroughly quaffable, if best kept for those open to more adventurous vinous experiences.
2006 was a difficult year for Château Musar, with a month long war taking place between Israel and Hezbollah. Picking started for the earlier ripening vineyards in early August, with local villagers bravely helping the harvest, before a dangerous and circuitous truck journey to transport the grapes to the winery, avoiding the usual mountain roads for fear of attack. Other vineyards were successfully harvested, with certain varieties ripening early, and others exceptionally late.
…And although ten years old, this wine is still a youngster in Musar terms, with its best years still to come. Bring ’em on!