Topic: TN: Ch. Musar vertical (11 vintages) with Serge Hochar, owner (long)
Author: Mike Conner (Knoxville, TN)
Date: Sun May 13 02:26:24 2001

Thanks to an incredible coincidence, I was able to attend a very intimate tasting and dinner with co-owner and winemaker Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar of Lebanon. The story starts with a recent Knoxville visit by Bart Broadbent (the U.S. importer of Musar and other wines of course) who discovered several older vintages of Musar available at one of the distributors in town. He then made it known that Serge Hochar was visiting the U.S. in the next few weeks (as a part of a world-wide tour), and expected Serge would love to do some tastings throughout the southeast due to that stash of wines. So a tasting in Knoxville on Friday, May 11th was arranged.

At first, a fairly hefty price was quoted to folks for the tasting (long story) and not too many signed up (who knows about Musar?), but in the final end, the distributor and broker for Musar absorbed most of the cost of the wine, and brought the price down but it was too late to get the word out, so 4 (yup, only 4) wine consumers, one reporter (from Atlanta), one retailer, the distributor rep and the southeast broker attended the tasting and dinner that followed. A terrible shame, as I know many Knoxville wine geeks would have enjoyed the evening (but, with this much smaller group, Serge seemed to relax a bit and questioned us quite a bit throughout the evening - although concerned about the lack of attendance, Serge did say he enjoyed the give and take of the evening).

I wish I had thought about bringing a tape recorder as Serge had so many wonderful things that most wine geeks would love to hear - specifically his philosophy about wine. He advocates that wine should be kept under the "art not science" catagory, and he hopes wine has gotten a good enough foothold in this country that it would become as wine is known through most of Europe - an expected part of the meal.

Serge took over the winemaking duties in 1959 from his father. His first vintages (through the ''60s) were made in a style that was heavily influenced by his experience with the wines of Bordeaux. (he lamented the fact that most Bordeaux was out of the price range of a lot of people) But, as he got into the ''70s, he slightly modified his style of winemaking to make the wines of Musar as unique items - as close to natural as he could.

Chateau Musar has about 130 hectares under vine. The reds vines are at about 3,000 feet of elevation above the Bekaa Valley (about 15 miles north of Beirut). Cabernet sauvignon, cinsault, cariagne, and smaller amounts of grenache and mourvedre are planted. For the reds, the age of the vines is about 25 to 50 or 60 years (younger vine production goes into the second wine), and in an average year about 20,000 bottles of the flagship red are produced. Yields are usually 30-35 hl/h (sometimes down to 20-25). For the white, two local grapes are planted, obaideh (similar to chardonnay) and merwah (similar to semillon). These are planted at about 4,500 feet of elevation, with 50 to 150 year old vines. Yields are a miniscule 15hl/h! (no oak is used on the white)

His winemaking philosophy is truth and life. Truth in that his wines are as natural as he can make them.

For the red, after fermentation (a total of about 30 days from the harvest) from natural yeasts, he places his wine (still separated by varietal and vineyard patch) into concrete vats for a full year. Then he racks the wines into French (Nevers oak) barrels (no more than 1/3 new) for about a year & ½. He uses NO sulphur dioxide as he feels his wines just don''t need it. He also never filters or fines his wines (I think he said he might lightly filter his white if needed). In the third year, the wines go back into vats in March for settling. He makes his selections and blends in June-July, then bottling occurs shortly thereafter, 2 & ¾ years after harvest (the blend is almost always 30+% cabernet sauvignon, 30+% cinsault and 30+% cariagne, with the remainder grenache and mourvedre on occasion). He then holds onto the wines in bottle for another three years before he releases them for sale. (I didn''t get the details on the whites, but since the ''96 is the current release, a similar regiment must be used.)

He is adamant that his wines be an all-natural product, and that they should be "alive" (hence the "life"). He stated that several times as we were tasting back through the vintages, that all the wines we were tasting were very much alive (in fact, he was surprised at how youthful they were!).

Serge strives to make his wines in a way that will allow a terrific finish (hence his dependence on "natural"). It is his opinion that a wine could have a so-so start, a so-so mid-palate and have a long finish and it would be very memorable to the taster. He even declassified his ''92 as he didn''t feel it had much of a finish. He stated he liked the aromatics and the feel on the palate, but it just didn''t finish well. How many wineries do that?

He also wants to make wines that go with food. He sees some of the more extracted wines as being very difficult to match with food, and he says that is a shame. For that reason, he isn''t as appreciative of his ''70 than what wine writers feel (and we bore that out in the tasting and dinner).

Serge also feels that he must offer his wines at reasonable prices, even though he knows he could easily charge more (he sells all he exports). Of course, he doesn''t give his bottles away, but given the quality, scarcity and aging curve, the wines should sell for more (thank goodness the wines aren''t hedonistic or they would be too pricey). But, he is a proponent of fair pricing and keeps the caps on what he charges (he likes that the price of his wine is within the budget of most wine-interested folks).

He is quite concerned about the ongoing trends in winemaking throughout the world today. He is not at all against technology (since he got an engineering degree in the late 50s), but he seemed to feel that the increased reliance on new technology in winemaking could be one reason for the "internationalization of wine" that seems to be found throughout the world (at least I felt that was his opinion from some of his comments).

He has experimented with stainless steel vats, but didn''t like how his wine tasted compared with the concrete vats. So, he got rid of them, and made improvements to his concrete vats. He says he has never tried to innoculate with different strains of yeasts. He also stated that if he tasted the effects of new wood in any of his barrels prior to blending, he wouldn''t include that wine into his final blend.

Today, around 92% of the production of Musar is exported.

I arrived a bit early, as the event''s organizer (Thad Cox of Ashe''s Wines & Spirits) told me that Serge wanted to personally decant the wines to be tasted about a half-hour before we started.

It was very interesting to watch Serge go to work. First, he would find the area inside the bottle where most of the sediment was located, and would keep that side down while pouring. He would then pour a small amount into a glass to smell and taste it. The leftover amount in the glass would then be used to rinse out the decanter, before the wine was poured into it. Very carefully (and with a steady hand) he would pour the wine into the decanter. He used a lamp to view through the shoulder to determine when the heavier sediment started to come to the top. He would allow some of the very fine sediment through ("it adds to the wine"), but stopped pouring when the heavier "crunchy" stuff got to the neck. For most of the wines, that left just about an ounce and ½ or so of wine in the bottle. This was continued for all the red wines.

Serge prefers to taste from youngest to oldest in a tasting environment, so the taster will be better able to catch the complexities in the older wines as compared to the younger ones.

On to the wines tasted. There was no wine that seemed damaged in any way (no corked wines!). I didn''t do as good a job taking tasting notes, as Serge would only allow about 3-4 minutes to taste three wines at a time (this grew an additional minute or two with the final sets - the wines of the 70s and 60s). Most of the time, the previous wine''s finish would still be in my mouth as I was trying to discern flavors in the next one (Serge suggested we should spit between wines, but not to drink water or eat any bread).

All of the following are the flagship red wine, the Chateau Musar red (with the exception of the last one). None of the wines were showing any amber; all were a medium garnet/ruby. The oldest bottles (except the ''70) had a bit of "lightening" at the edges. All of the red wines (except two or three) showed high acid, but it wasn''t out of balance with the other components. The red wines were tasted in flights of three (2 at the end) although all had been poured before we sat down.

1994 Chateau Musar

Some tar, red fruits and nice spice in the nose. Fairly tannic, but relatively well balanced with the fruit. High acidity (but not too much). Decent feel on the palate. Good finish. Will age nicely. (warm vintage conditions)

1991 Chateau Musar

A bit darker amongst the first three wines. A bit fuller fruit on the nose, but less tar. A bit more complex on the nose, with nice berry notes. Still fairly tannic, but a very nice feel in the mouth. More potential than the ''94. Again, good acids, and a lengthy finish (even with the tannins). Serge said this was a big vintage (big = good).

1989 Chateau Musar

A tighter nose. With vigorous swirling, some nice fruit and berry notes and a bit of tar. Fairly fullish feel on the palate, with some tannins. Not as quite as full as the ''91. Well balanced feel. Good finish.

(the 88-72 all had similar color. Good ruby red with almost no lightening at the edges)

1988 Chateau Musar

A big full fruity nose with good berry notes. No tar, but I did get a bit of a metallic or medicinal tinge (but positive). Some spice. Very nice depth on the palate, with ripe tannins and good balancing acidity. Good finish.

1986 Chateau Musar

Some soy and a bit of a stewed fruit compote on the nose (but it wasn''t distracting). Still some other berry fruit too. More open. On the palate, a bit less concentrated, with more structure. Not as many tannins as the other wines. Definitely elegant. Long finish.

1981 Chateau Musar

A tighter nose. Some red fruit. A bit stern on the palate, with fair tannins still evident. There was decent fruit though, and good balance. Good finish. Serge commented this was the most "medoc" wine so far tasted. I thought it lacked just a bit, but it was still enjoyable.

1978 Chateau Musar

More complexity - berry fruits, spice, hint of medicine. Nice round flavors with good acidity with a touch of tannins still evident. Nice finish.

1972 Chateau Musar

A bit of a shallow nose, but still shows a ripe core of berry fruit and some spice. Excellent depth to the fruit. Almost a "beam" of berry flavors. Good acidity, and no tannins showing through. Excellent finish. Possibly the best wine on the palate. Serge says this goes terrifically with chocolate mousse. (and, later, the best red with the lamb)

1970 Chateau Musar

A super dark garnet color. Noticeably darker then the surrounding vintages. A reticent nose, but coaxes up a wonderful complexity of berry fruits, some tar and spice. Superb depth with tremendous structure, fullish ripe tannins and good acidity. This bottle seems still a baby. Excellently balanced. Serge much preferred the ''72 to this ''70 (he said the ''70 was easy to make, vs the 72). (again, later with the lamb dish, this didn''t match at all - too much structure and tannins - but tasting alone it was superb)

I didn''t want to spit this nor the ''72 out, which messed up my palate and my (already suspect) tasting abilities for the last two reds.

1969 Chateau Musar

An unusual nose (I had trouble pinning down the flavors), but still showing some berry fruit. A bit more complex than the ''70, but less fruit. Reasonable flavors on the palate with almost no tannins, but still showed a good bit of "structure." Decent finish. Seemed the weakest of the evening (but still something there to be of interest).

1966 Chateau Musar

I had tasted this wine about 3 weeks before.

Brighter fruit nose than the ''69. A bit simple, and showing a bit of a metallic edge. Very good depth once tasted, with just a smidge of tannins, but great following acidity. A very lengthy finish. Very good, and probably my third or fourth favorite (''72, ''70, ''91). Nice to see a wine from my birthyear in as good a shape as I am. ;-)

After some more chatting (and with Serge''s suggestion to taste/drink any of the reds as we were about to taste the white, and it would ruin our palates for red for some time) we sipped a few more reds. We then tasted the white, which was allowed to sit out and get close to room temperature (as Serge wanted it).

1996 Chateau Musar white

A nice golden color in the glass. An intriguing and yet unusual nose. Nothing I have encountered before (and Serge said I was unlikely to have, unless I have tasted one of his whites previously). I had a difficult time pinning down the flavors, until someone said nuts. It then clicked in my mind that I smelled almonds or marzipan (and Serge later confirmed this). It was quite viscous on the palate - oily. The flavors were almost flabby, but a bit of acidity helped lift the flavors. A reasonable finish.

Serge said the white would need about 10 years after the vintage to start showing any complexity. And, he said the ''96 was a low-acid year, and that his ''95 white was more typical (no ''95 white was available for us to compare).

We then progressed to the dinner, where the ''94 red and ''96 white were poured for tasting. Serge wanted us to try both wines with the two main courses, as he very much wants people to get over the red with red meats and white with fish attitudes.

The first course was "olive poached halibut with sundried tomato sauce and rosemary garlic souffle." The white didn''t do too well with this course, and neither the ''94 red. But, the food was pretty tasty.

The second course was "seared lamb loin with tomato and plum chutney and lamb a jus with sweet potato pureé." Again, this was excellent. The white did quite well when one tasted just the sweet potato pureé. The sweetness in the potato helped cut through the acidity of the wine. The white sucked with the lamb. The ''94 did remarkably well with the lamb, although the ''72 really shined. The ''70 didn''t go at all with the lamb - just too much structure in the wine. The same could be said about the other big vintages like the ''91.

More chatting with Serge about wines ensued, and I then asked to have the sherry I brought to finish off the evening (since Serge doesn''t produce a true dessert wine [although his ''83 red Musar was something of a late harvest due to the war] I thought it would be nice to finish with something sweet).

NV Delgado Zuleta Monteagudo Pedro Ximénez Solera Muy Vieja Del Condedo (Xeres)

A true PX from Xeres (most are from Montilla). Very dark opaque color. Very nice nose, showing a hint of alcohol but lovely raisiny/molasses and some old oak flavors dominate. On the palate, this is very deep with reasonable sweetness. It just swarms the mouth in its precision and balance. The finish is tremendously long and succulent. I love it, and Serge told me he appreciated it very much.

So, the evening was winding down (it was nearly 11pm), and Serge thanked us all for giving him a great evening, and we thanked him for making these terrific wines that brought us all together.

I would highly recommend anyone who has the opportunity to meet with Serge to take it! He is very articulate and a terrific spokesman for the natural approach to winemaking. I hope one day in the next few years to make a trip to visit him at his winery (he very warmly invited us all to visit!) and to have the opportunity to watch the master in his element.

Thanks for reading,

Mike