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Vertical tasting of Château Musar

by Tom Cannavan, 05/00

Lebanon's Château Musar is one of the world's best-known and most romantic wines. The vineyards, famously sited right on the battle lines of the war-ravaged Bekaa Valley, sit at 3,000 feet above sea level and are planted mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault. A white wine is produced too, though it is relatively unknown, from indigenous Obaideh and Merwah grapes. The Grand Vin is aged in French Nevers oak and is released only five years or so after bottling.

Château Musar is also somewhat controversial. According to some authorities, it is balanced and complex, like a wilder, more aromatic sibling of top Claret. Others will tell you that the wine is oxidised and rough; often unbalanced and full of off flavours. Musar also endures a reputation for poor corks and bottle variation leading to wildly different experiences for the consumer. But it is a wine with an absolutely diehard band of followers who love the style. Add to this the fact that the wine can age for decades, yet can be bought for little more than a bottle of middle of the road New World Cabernet Sauvignon, and any wine lover would be intrigued by the prospect of a vertical tasting that included many top vintages.

My overall impression? When Musar is good, it is very good. A couple of these wines were absolutely outstanding and most were very good, especially given their moderate pricing. The bad examples are pretty stinky. The words of Oz Clarke where ringing in my ears as I tasted: "The flavour seems oxidised at first. If you taste Musar too young you are certain it can't last. But that's part of the magic. The young wines show too much age. The old wines show too much fruit. They all throw a sediment in their seventh year, and between eight and ten, just as you think they can only slip downhill, they break out into their unique maturity" (New Classic Wines, 1991).

The tasting was not blind. Prices are in pounds sterling (approx £10=$15US).

Château Musar White 1995 - £7.49
Medium/deep gold colour. Vinous, quite dirty nose with aromas of peach kernel, vanilla, marzipan and warm, sunny fruit. A little hint of spearmint. The palate is juicy and quite savoury. It is medium to full bodied with plenty of alcohol - a little hot. But there is good buttery peach and fig fruit, hints of quince and buttered toast. This is definitely a rough and oxidised style, but there is absolutely bags of character and complexity for the money and the citrussy acidity and spicy oak grip the finish. Excellent (if it's your style).

Château Musar Rosé 1995 - £7.99
This has a pale amber/salmon pink colour. There are toffeed, nutty aromas on the lightly oxidised nose with overripe pear skins and some oak(?). The palate is quite rich, with molasses and dark, rasiny fruit. This is too rustic and for me a little pointless.

Hochar 1995 - £6.49
The second wine of Musar. The colour is a very pale, light ruby. It has powerful animal aromas of leather and beef, spice and an almost medicinal, high-toned, menthol note. A little cherry fruit too. The palate is very sweet with lots of soft strawberry fruit and firmer cherry nuances. There's a hint of liquorice. Quite high acidity and some tannins underpin the wine and it has good balance.

Château Musar 1994 - £10.49
The current vintage. Colour is medium ruby. It has a clean nose of cherry, menthol and spices. There is some brooding animal, slightly toffeed character beneath. Very sweetly fruited on the palate with lovely red cherry and strawberry flavours and a fine backbone of tobacco and smoky oak, ripe tannins and good acidity. Balanced and elegant, yet powerful with good length. Excellent.

Château Musar 1993 - £10.99
Slightly deeper, more opaque ruby. Fruit is a touch stewed on the nose: a little rubbery. There are aromas of cherry and caramel. The palate is richer with lots of tobacco and cedary flavours amongst ripe cherry and raisin fruit. There's lots of spice and alcohol too. This is rich, sweet, concentrated stuff though perhaps a touch less elegant than the '94. Very good.

Château Musar 1988 - £20.99
Medium ruby with browning rim. Quite a volatile nose with baked plum and warm, tarry aromas. Lots of sweet, gamey perfume too. On the palate it is gripped by tannins that are mouth-puckering. There are flavours of brown sugar, and herbal, earthy fruit though quite rich and sweet. Very nice balance and a long, savoury and clearly defined finish. Very good.

Château Musar 1987 - £24.99
Dark, browning red. The nose of this wine showed high levels of volatile acidity and a burnt, caramelised nose that suggests maderisation. Very horsey on the nose and not much better on the palate. A faulty wine.

Château Musar 1986 (in magnum) - £42.99
Pale ruby, fading to amber. Lightly sherried nose but lots of warm berry fruit too. On the palate it has rich, sweet, mature flavours of leather and game with brown sugar and stewed raisiny flavours. Little herbal nuances. Very complete and resolved, there are still spicy tannins in the finish and balance that suggests it will hold for some time.

Château Musar 1981 - £25.99
Medium dark, quite opaque browning ruby colour. Volatile notes with very farmyardy aromas. Tar, cherry, tobacco and spice. Palate is weighty and shows high alcohol, and tannins are still quite grippy. They are integrated however, with a solid core of silky strawberry fruit and bittersweet game and Christmas cake spice flavours. Long and terrifically sweet, this is drinking beautifully but should hold a few years yet. Excellent.

Château Musar 1978 - £31.99
Medium/pale ruby fading to light amber. Very much like an old Claret on the nose with fragrant cedary aromas, tobacco, raspberry and some danker, more vegetal qualities. Chewy, sweet old oaky flavours dominate the palate, but there is still good elegant fruit beneath. The final impression is of a slightly fragile wine that might well be a touch past its best.

Château Musar 1975 - £39.99
Warm brick red of medium density. A very sweet vanilla-infused nose, with notes of caramel and toasty oak. Loads of tobacco. On the palate plenty of sour-edged, juicy fruit flavours fend off highish acidity, but there is good concentration and balance overall with a long, clean, slightly spicy finish.