There are a lot of great and even grand tasting experiences to be had in the wide world of wine. But every now and then, if you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself at an unassuming, casual weeknight tasting that somehow becomes transcendental. The setting, the people and, most of all, the wines come together to magically transport you to a place far beyond your workaday world.
Last Tuesday’s Chateau Musar tasting at Tim’s Wine Market Orlando was such an event.
Before you call me overly sentimental or accuse me of having had one too many “tastes,” you must understand that I go to a lot of wine tastings – usually at least two a week and often more. I almost always enjoy them on some level – intellectual, social, or sensory. But for a number of reasons, this one was a cut above and a step beyond.
A Storied Lebanese Winery
Before I go any further, here’s a little background on Chateau Musar:
This family-owned winery was founded almost 90 years ago in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, not far from Beirut.
Its wines won critical acclaim after they were “discovered” by a British importer in 1979; they gained something of a cult status after Decanter magazine named Musar’s second-generation winemaker, Serge Hochar, as its first “Man of the Year” for maintaining high-quality production even during Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war in the 1970s and 80s.
An Engaging Host
The winery is now owned and operated by the third generation of the Hochar family – two brothers including the charming Marc Hochar, who led the tasting at Tim’s.
As our group of about twenty attendees arrived, Marc milled around and chatted with patrons as we sipped our sparkling Vouvray aperitifs.
He struck me as remarkably personable, genuine and candid – about his wines and others! (Some of our chat was off the record, as you might imagine.)
A Storybook Setting
Tim’s owner Tim Varan usually holds his wine classes on Wednesday evenings in a classroom in the back of his Ivanhoe Village store. Since the Musar tasting was on a Tuesday, the classroom was occupied by Jean K. Reilly and her WSET Level 3 wine certification class.
Tim’s solution was to move the tasting into an idyllic, bougainvillea-draped courtyard a few doors down from the shop. While I know it was inconvenient for Tim and his staff, the outdoor location on this balmy but pleasant spring evening boosted the sublimity of the event by several orders of magnitude.
As the tasting began and Marc Hochar launched into the tale of his family and his winery, it was easy to imagine yourself in a ancient Middle Eastern palace court, instead of steps from busy Orange Ave.
Confoundingly Compelling Wines
A wine that confounds me is usually a wine I love. Most of the Chateau Musar wines we tasted confounded me. And I fell for them, hard.
We tasted eight wines in all. There were two whites – the entry level “Jeune” and the 2006 Chateau Musar label – along with six reds, including a vertical tasting of Chateau label wines from 2008, 2004, 2001, and 1998.
As any good wine student should, I tried diligently to dissect these wines, to break them down into their component aromas and flavors. They continually defied me.
Here’s an excerpt from my tasting notes on the current vintage 2008 Chateau Musar red:
What IS that??
Flowers – violets? Herbs — dusty herbs …
Even as I tried to analyze these wines, they kept teasing and distracting me, changing in the glass, leading me to a more emotional, even poetic response.
Simply put, these wines are difficult to put into a box. Marc himself said they defy the traditional Old World vs New World dichotomy. “They’re Ancient World wines,” he said.
Also, as he put it, “there’s no makeup on these wines.”
The winery employs a highly non-interventionist winemaking philosophy. The main label wines are not fined or filtered, and the Musar vineyards were the first in Lebanon to be certified organic.
I fell in love with the 2006 Chateau Musar white (2007 is the current vintage – almost unheard of for a white wine). It’s a blend of two ancient indigenous varietals – obaideh and merwah. It has a beautiful golden color, and its flavor profile is inscrutable, with notes of honey and cheese rind, orange liqueur and cooked apple bubbling up in succession as the wine changes in the glass.
All Chateau Musar main label reds are blends of roughly equal amounts of cabernet sauvignon, carignan, and cinsault. This unorthodox combination of Bordeaux and Rhone varietals is another reason these wines are enchantingly hard to pin down.
My personal favorites were the 2008 (partially described above) and the 1998. The ’98 had even more of a dusty meaty quality, plus some chocolate notes too. Marc said it was no coincidence that I gravitated towards those two vintages, since cinsault was the main influence on the character of both wines. He expects the ’08 to be very similar to the ’98 as it ages.
Speaking of aging, Marc insisted the wines we sampled were, for the most part, “babies.” The cellar at the winery has vintages going back to the 1950s, which he says are still drinking quite well. From what we tasted last week, that’s not too hard to believe.
Back to Reality
As the sun set over Lake Ivanhoe across the street, twinkling lights began to sparkle around the courtyard, and the wine began to glow in our glasses. No one wanted to leave.
Alas, we did have to return to reality, and that included acknowledging the hard truth that Chateau Musar wines are not what merchants diplomatically call “value wines.” The main label Chateau bottles retail for $65 and up – way up.
The second and third labels are significantly more affordable, however and offer an entry point for people eager to try Musar without making quite such a large investment.
If you are in a position to splurge, however, I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed by any of the Chateau Musar bottles – especially if you can stand to let them age in your cellar for a few years … or a few decades.