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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.
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.
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.
Tasting notes here are from the informative website of the domain. Many thanks to Zaan Eksteen from Broadbent Selections, and Marc Hochar from Chateau Musar, for their help with this article.
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)
Hochar Père et Fils Red has often been described as the ‘second’ wine of Chateau Musar. A blend of Cinsault, Grenache, and Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from a single vineyard near the Bekaa Valley village of Aana, characterised by deep soils over limestone. Wines are aged for 6-9 months in barrel before blending. Bottling is without filtration or fining, and the wine generally is aged in bottle for several years before release. The first half of 2019 was exceptionally cold, creating a harvest with dramatically reduced quantities. The wine has aromas of bitter sweet cherries and hints of dark chocolate. Bright red fruit flavors and sweet, spicy notes. Soft tannins and fresh acidity with very long length.
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)
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)
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
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)
Musar White is a blend of ancient grape varieites Obaideh and Merwah, indegenous to the mountains of Lebanon. The Obaideh vineyards are in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains on stony, chalky soils. The Merwah vines are on the seaward side of Mount Lebanon, on calcereous gravels.
Musar notes 2014 as one for the records - the mountains were not covered with winter snow, and dry conditions were further compounded by low rainfall through the Spring and into the Summer. Bursting with herb-scented honey, ripe peach, fresh almonds and hazelnuts. A full-bodied white despite having fresh acidity and a saline edge which results in an attractive textural balanced wine.
Higher than usual alcohol suggests more fermentable sugars in the grapes - something we weren't to see again until many years later with the 2012 vintage, however unlike that year the 1974 was much more delicate in its youth and developed its character beautifully after many years in the Musar cellar.
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
Flowering happened later than usual but was good and this delayed the whole process with late maturity. The crop was normal, both in quality and quantity; grapes were in good shape with no problems or disease and good to eat! Fermentation went smoothly but quicker than usual. Results were good, 1998 is a very aromatic and fragrant year.
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)
Varietals were blended two years after the harvest. The blend was then placed back in cement tanks, and bottles a year later. After 4 years of bottle maturation in the deep stone cellars, the 2004 vintage was not quite ready at year 7, so its release was postponed. It is now finally available in the US market.
The 2012 harvest could be summarized in one word - interesting. Winter was extremely cold and snowy, April proved fresh and rainy giving a boost for the opening of the buds. In early May, all the vineyards were astonishingly green with many small buds. A dark burgundy color, a nose of matured fruits, plums and figs with licorice and spicy notes.
The 2016 harvest showed that global warming is causing higher annual temperatures and at the same time, successive years of low rainfall have resulted in drier soils. We have high expectations for the future of this vintage for decades to come.