As the dawn of our old decade passes by and we enter the new one, starting today with the second say of the year two thousand and twenty, I was reminded last night in a Nina Simone song `I aint got no home`, and how the expression `what goes around comes back around`, still resonates.
It all started over the Christmas and New Year festivities, when I reflected on my choice of wines to celebrate both, including and up until our dinner on 1st January. A humble and fine selection indeed had been selected for the week, enjoyed and drunk. And my goodness how some of them were so, so very disappointing. Given both the reputations of some of the Chateaux (Bdx), one Winery (USA) and various Bodegas (Spain & Argy), and of course in some cases the hi-echelon reputation of the Winemaker, in some cases and how some of them really could have done a bit, a lot, better.
Now this is where señorita Simone comes in, as my thoughts go back to the words used in just about every school report I had the privilege of receiving. `He could do better if he tried` and `disappointing`, even sometimes `very disappointing` which where pretty much the norm. Now, I want to pass this sentiment, new decade style, onto our winemakers, wine journalists and anyone else who is in the work of producing and promoting good wine. So having, and mutually grown rather tired of my formal, brutal and elusive private education (how spoilt am I?), around the time of my seventeenth birthday I rejoiced in the news that I was finally being released (a polite way of saying that I got fired, or is it expelled?) from college. It was one of greatest days of my life, well until that is, I had children of course, and wow! what days, four of them over 8 years, where those. All amazing! So it must have take them, the college administration that is, the best part of 1.500 days to work it all out. `This boy is not contributing to the the school community, get rid of him`. So off I went, and for reasons somewhat metaphysical I arrived on the doorstep of one Monsieur Johnny Hugel (RIP), who most of you know lived in the Alsatian village of Riquewihr, as did his family since the year 1639.
I was welcomed by Johnny and his two brothers to do my `stagiaire`. It was tough at the time, in the late 1970s, Riquewihr had little running `hot`water, very little electricity and life was very peasant style indeed, nothing like the swinging life of London, which on reflection was perfect for me. Up at 6am and into the back of the corrugated Citroen wagon, Gitanes and Eau de vie for breakfast, rattling around in the wagon on our way to the vineyards. No time for coffee at all, and then back at 6pm, totally knackered.
It was not quite the life I had imagined for myself even at this tender young age, having spent the last 10 years couped up with Arabs, Jews and Hashemite Princes. Some of them became Empresarios, Gangsters, Military types, Adventurers, Musicians, Surgeons. Even one of them became a King, bless him. But a handful of us sensitive souls who managed to, just, survive the boarding torture and everything that went with it, developed a culinary and vinous passion. Probably a self survival technique. For me definitely so.
Now maybe these early Arabian influences in my life projected much culinary influence onto my adult palate. Most of my spice cabinet in the kitchen today is based on herbs and spices from the Turkey, the Levantine and the Lebanon. And the one wine that I only know for me, that never disappoints will always come from the said Bekaa valley in the Lebanon. Yes! you got it, Chateau Musar and of course both Moo Moo Red and the Moo Moo white, would probably be my desert island white wine from just about any vintage that they have ever produced. So fifteen years ago or thus, I started down here The Moo Moo Club, and once a year fans of this wine meetup. We are few and we are as keen as mustard, and when we can we have an evening dedicated to the chateau and it`s produce. So before the close of the last decade we managed a Moo Moo gathering to put a vinous smile back on the vinous end of year frown.
With great fortune we tasted and drank these vintages, and the big surprise was the 2016 Chateau Musar Rosé. I really do not get on with Rosé wine at all, but this was no ordinary Rosé. It is a blend of Merwah (40%) and Obaideh (57%) as the base wine. The grapes are grown at 1200-1400 metres above sea level in the Mount Lebanon and Anti Lebanon ranges from old vines on their original rootstocks. The last of the grapes to be harvested in October, the Merwah and Obaideh are both barrel fermented and aged in French oak for 9 months, with a small proportion of red Cinsault wine (3%) – they are then mixed in the press before fermentation. The 2016 has a very pale salmon colour which belies the complex aromas and flavours within; hints of spice, rosewater, citrus and a little red fruit lead to flavours of quince, almond and subtle vanilla from the oak ageing. The wine has a textural weight and body which finishes with a saline minerality. The freshness and youth in this 2016 vintage lends a vibrant acidity to balance the unexpected richness and complexity of the wine, though both will develop with time and integrate seamlessly with the oak element and enhancing the experience. Wow!
We then moved on to Chateau Musar White from 2009, 2003 and 2000 vintages. Obaideh and Merwah, are reputedly the ancestors of Chardonnay/Chasselas and Semillon. They are still cultivated from un-grafted vines on original rootstock. The vineyards on the seaward facing slopes of Mount Lebanon and the foothills of Anti-Lebanon were planted between 50 and 90 years ago and are at 1,200 metres above sea level – few vineyards of this calibre and history remain in the world today. The 2009 is a blend produced from 2/3rd Obaideh and 1/3rd Merwah and was fermented and aged partly in oak barrels for 9 months and partly in stainless steel vats, with temperatures ranging between 18 and 22 degrees Celsius. Obaideh is high in natural grape sugars and low in acidity, yielding wine with a creamy texture and flavours of honey and lemons – Merwah is a light skinned grape variety with light citrus and nut flavours, and blended together they make a distinctive white wine with excellent ageing potential. 2009 was a truly memorable year in the Bekaa Valley and a vintage of two halves – before and after the rain! There was a deluge of rain in late September, unprecedented since records began in 1870. The late ripening indigenous white grapes Obaideh and Merwah began arriving at the winery on the 15th and 21st October respectively, the former halved in yield but superb in quality, with low PH and high acidity, qualities shared by the Merwah. The wine has a deep golden colour with honeyed aromas, full of tropical fruits; pineapple, banana with warm, toasty buttery notes. The palate is rich in ripe yellow fruits, quince and apricot with the pineapple flavours following through. It also has dried fruits and almonds with oak ageing characters. This is a powerful vintage full of yellow fruits and honeycomb; there is a fine balance between the oily texture and fresh acidity. Bravo!
The 2003 vintage 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) The defining characteristics of the 2003 Chateau Musar white are deeper colour than usual, with greater intensity of aroma and flavour. After the rainiest winter in 15 years, no rain fell after April and it became very hot and sunny. In May, a 10-day heatwave affected flowering, reducing yields by around 30%, and concentrating sugar and acidity in the remaining grapes. July and August were cooler than usual. Harvesting began in October; picked by hand, the grapes arrived at the winery in excellent condition, with good maturity and ripeness. After pressing, the resulting juice was fermented in French (Nevers) barriques, remaining in oak for up to 9 months. At the end of spring 2004, the separate Obaideh and Merwah wines were blended. The final wine was bottled in September 2004 and released in 2009. Merwah was dominant in 2003, as if it were compensating for its absence due to a hail storm in 2002, when no Musar White was produced at all. I managed to purchase 10 cases a while ago and we still have stock for sale in the bond. But be warned `it is adictive`.
The 2000 vintage offered us 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 minerally 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 some of the White 1993 vintage but this year does have its own very specific identity. It has the pineapple/citrus fruit with the honey toasty character we have come to expect from our white wines but it also has a mineral like quality which makes this a most intriguing vintage.
The Chateau Musar Reds on the evening where from 2004, 2002 and 2000. In 2004 the Hochars mentioned that this kind of vintage 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 one week 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. The wines from the first two weeks of the harvest were fruity and mellow with floral aromas from the Cinsault and Carignan. The Cabernet Sauvignon was more powerful, intense and concentrated with mature black and red fruits, leather and spices. Two weeks later the Cinsault and Carignan developed more of a red fruit character, the overall palate became more velvety with smooth integrated tannins. The wines spent 9 months in cement vats and then a year in French nevers oak barrels and the final blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan rested for another 9 months in vats before being bottled and transferred to the Chateau Musar cellars high in the mountains at Ghazir to begin its journey of maturation and development. A deep burgundy colour 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. Another brilliant wine surprise!
And more surprises for the 2002 vintage as it was a year full of pleasant surprises which look likely to continue… After four successive years of drought, Musar had a long, rainy and cold winter which lasted until June. This was followed by a mild July and hot August. The vines took longer to reach maturity than average and the harvest started almost two weeks later than in previous years. The maturity level varied from vineyard to vineyard forcing us to be selective in our harvesting – the grapes were all hand picked in the early mornings. The grapes began arriving at the winery on the 15th September and we had to lower the average fermentation temperature to give the yeast the ability to finish transforming the sugar into alcohol. Fermentation in concrete vats went perfectly well but slowly with the temperature kept below 31 degrees and this very long fermentation and maceration were totally unexpected. The wine was racked six months after the harvest and then put into French nevers oak barrels for one year. The three varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan which up until then had been kept separately, were blended in the following summer of 2004 and bottled in July and August 2005. The grapes of this year were characterised by high levels of sugar, acidity and tannins and the resulting wines are much bigger, riper and fuller than expected. An exceptional year, as normally in Lebanon, high sugar content means less acidity but in 2002 everything was there! A deep crimson – even blood red colour with an intense and complex nose of spicy red fruits, cedar with deeper plum notes. Generous red and black fruits follow through to the palate combined with Christmas cake spices, figs, dates and stewed plums. Good acidity, silky tannins with a rich fruited palate end with a long promising finish.
Next, the 2000 vintage offered us a deep dark red, perhaps darker than usual at Chateau Musar. The nose is a complex intriguing mixture of figs, prunes, leather, dark tea, tobacco, black olives with spices and a certain earthiness. On the palate, you will find ripe black cherries, figs, damsons-even chocolate and olives. There is good acidity with nice smooth tannins resulting in a wine which full-bodied, rich and velvety with very long length. In summary we feel that the 2000 vintage is a serious wine with serious ageing potential but with a very approachable and open style which makes it perfect for drinking now as well as cellaring. Perhaps more Bordeaux like in character than in previous vintages
The previous week was a special birthday lunch for a very special lady, and we drank an excellent bottle of 1979 Chateau Musar Red. It was a silky, pretty and gamey with dried berries and hints of cedar and flowers. A classic bottle!The palate was medium-bodied, bloody and with fine, smooth tannins and a really surprisingly juicy finish. Fresh tobacco and damp soil. Delicious! My slow oven cooked lamb shoulder and ribs a la Fez with plates of Moroccan salad all came together in perfect harmony. Oh yeah!
I can still remember drinking my first Château Musar red back in 1981. It was the 1977 vintage, and this sparked my love interest with the chateau. It was the 1981 vintage that was offered to me blind in 1983 by the then newly opened and very trendy `Pont de la Tour` sommelier, who stretched his arm out in my direction with a large hand blown glass of red wine and asked `so what do you think is Will?` Can I remind you that even in those days (the early 1980s) London town was pretty much Claret and Burgundy centric with lashings of what was called Hunter Valley Oak Aged Chardonnay everywhere. Golly we really have come such a long way haven’t we? Anyway, I of course stuck my beak in the glass and gave it a good old sniff and a sip. I suggested it was a youngish St.Julien, that is almost ready for drinking but would last another 20 years. Well, when the fellow showed me the bottle I had to squint, as it read Chateau something or other from the Bekaa valley, where? …. I was hooked immediately, and the Moo Moo Club still lives on! as does my passion for this amazing wine.
So before wishing you all the best for next 364 days of the year and for all those corks that we are going to pull together, in all those bars and in all those restaurants. I want to round you up with a wine that I know you will have never tasted before and recommend that you do so. It is the red 1974 Chateau Musar. I tried it once with the family Hochar, in London, and can safely say that next to the 1981 vintage it is the one to track down if you can. We have just shipped 6 bottles from the chateau, and I believe their last. My tasting note from two years ago tells me that it had very good depth in color but still very light, warm and orange tones. Very vibrant on the nose, alive with sweet fruits but a dry nose to it. Shows extraordinary texture in the aromas, earthy and aged. The palate is velvety, textured, extremely deep. This is a big wine with a very long finish and high acidity. Combining older fruits with notes of sweet biscuits. A fascinating wine, like an old man with many stories to tell. And if you ask me nicely, one day I will tell you the story of how this miracle of a vintage was actually made, as it was a year when the civil war in the Lebanon was at it`s worst, and in theory no wine should have ever been made. But it was!
`Alsihat aljayidat walsaeadat lakum jamieana`