Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Château Musar Cuvée Rouge Ghazir Lebanon Beqaa Valley wines

Buying Château Musar: a wine store experience

Habitually, when you enter a wine store, your thoughts (usually) get blurry... and faced with so much choice on the shelves, you begin to wonder around and think about what you are going to buy... it is usually in this moment that, suddenly, a wine consultant or a person from the staff wakes you up from your semi-lethargy and asks you if you need some help to find something or if you need a suggestion or recommendation... (I know, this kind of situation never really happened to you at your local store... and you still wonder where can you find such a store where customer service is taken so pleasantly and seriously)....

After a few seconds of deliberation with yourself and once you've said "no" to the wine consultant (...confident that anyway you know your stuff, and that obviously it is not you first time in the store, so you know your way around and you also know exactly what you are looking for...), it is with a bewildered look on your face that you begin browsing the shelves, barely able to recognize what you bought the last time you were there....

Thus, questions pop up in your mind about what should you choose to somewhat make the appropriate choice and if possible not make a mistake. With Fall coming back and Winter soon to arrive, generally, most people start to drink slightly fuller rosé and white wines but also richer yet still balanced and juicy, but more structured and opulent red wines.

Therefore, you are now faced with the choices of:
  • accepting the previously refused offer from the wine consultant and ask for his (or her) opinion and advice,
  • or feeling adventurous and sure that in any case, even if you don't know yet the wine that you're going to buy, it will be the best choice that you could have made yourself anyway, and you prefer to choose it yourself.
After a few minutes, you finally give up and realize that a bit of help will surely confirm your choice (or not at all in most cases) and put an end to your vain research. In fact the situation is more difficult than usual because you are looking for something richer, slightly heavier than what you normally drink since your guests like richer, more opulent wines than you do and, of course, you want to please them. And as it usually often happens in this kind of circumstance, the wine consultant suggests you a wine that you've never tried and have never even heard of before.

(I like that, as a wine buyer and a wine consultant, it is exciting and it keeps me sharp and constantly aware of the different wines that I have on the shelves, even if know them all sometimes it happened that I forgot about some of them for a short period of time, but customers always put me quickly back on track by testing my knowledge of each bottle everyday).

This situation seems familiar, well for me, it is the story of my nearly everyday life at the store. And the last time that I was confronted to this kind of situation was a few days ago.

A customer was looking for a rich, concentrated wine. At first, I wasn't necessarily inspired due to the fact that usually I like to recommend and drink less opulent, fresher wines, therefore big wines are not necessarily my "forte" .... (especially big Zin from California and overripe Shiraz from Australia.... even if as a wine buyer, I need to be and remain eclectic and open minded to any wine from the driest, most tannic and acidic to the jammier, riper, more alcoholic wines, I like my wines a bit more balanced, fresh, with attractive harmony, integrated tannins and lingering finish) .... but after asking the usual questions that every wine consultant should ask to every customer in a wine and spirits store:
  • What do you drink or which type of wine do you normally drink?
  • Do you usually like your wine drier or fruitier?
  • Would you rather go old world or new world?
  • Do you have any preference regarding the country or the region of origin?
  • How much would you like to spend? etc...
...multiple choice gathered in my head at once and I decided to be adventurous and advised my customer on an old favorite of mine: Château Musar, a rich, opaque yet balanced wine from Lebanon, and in my opinion, very close to what she was describing. When she realized that this wine is produced in Lebanon, she told me that she never try any wine from this country and will be happy to give it a try. She came back the next day to let me know that it was a great wine after decanting and that her guests really enjoyed it.

What a great job! It is not always that easy or simple, but overall, as I say: I don't sell wines, I sell happiness, culture, conversation and a good excuse to gather with friends or/and family around a good bottle and some food for a lay back time. In most cases, a well and honestly suggested bottle of wine is always a positive experience.

Château Musar Cuvée Rouge Ghazir Lebanon Beqaa Valley wines

I first heard about Château Musar about 12 years ago, when I was working in London as a young Sommelier in a Private Club called "Monte's" (a club for the rich and famous, on Sloane Street, including a fancy cocktail bar at the 2nd floor, a sophisticated restaurant serving dishes designed and concocted by Alain Ducasse at the first floor, a cozy cigar lounge t street level and a discreet discotheque in the basement).

At the time, in 1997, Monte's had (in my opinion) one of the best wine list in town; offering great wines from the greatest regions of France, Italy, Spain and Germany, also a few great examples of Australian, New Zealand and South African wines, but also some Lebanese wines including Château Musar.

Let's get acquainted a bit more with Lebanon before talking about the wine:

Lebanon (or Liban in French) officially the Republic of Lebanon (or République Libanaise in French), is a country in Western Asia, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It is pretty much surrounded by Syria from the north to the south east, and bordered by Israel to the south. The western part is a long shore line facing the Mediterranean sea. Lebanon's location has dictated and shaped its rich and unique cultural identity of religious and ethnic diversity.

Lebanon was the historic home of the Phoenicians, a maritime culture that flourished for nearly 2,500 years (3000–539 BC). Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the six provinces (including Beirut) forming present-day Lebanon were mandated to France, which explains why most Lebanese speaks French and are somewhat so influenced by the French culture. Lebanon established a unique political system in 1942, known as "confessionalism", a community-based, power-sharing mechanism. It was created when the ruling French mandatory powers expanded the borders of the former autonomous Ottoman Mount Lebanon district that was mostly populated by Maronite Catholics and Druze. The country gained independence in 1943, and French troops withdrew in 1946. Since then, Political power is concentrated in the office of the President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament, each representing one of Lebanon's three largest religious communities (Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shi'a Muslims).

Geographically, most of Lebanon is covered by hills and mountains, except for the narrow coastline and the Beqaa Valley (also known as Bekaa valley), which plays an integral role in Lebanon's agriculture, including wine. Lebanon has a moderate Mediterranean climate. In coastal areas, winters are generally cool and rainy whilst summers are hot and humid. In more elevated areas, temperatures usually drop below freezing during the winter with frequent, sometimes heavy snow; summers are warm and dry. Lebanon encompasses great beaches and ski resorts, which are about 1.5 to 2 hours (maximum) driving from each others, meaning that you could be trekking the mountains in the morning and laying down on your towel in the afternoon or enjoying a glass of wine in the many wineries of the Beqaa valley (Bekaa valley).

6,000 years ago, the Phoenicians were already acquainted with viticulture and wine making. In fact, Lebanon encompasses some of the oldest wine production sites of in the world. In the ancient times, the Phoenicians living on the coastal strip were instrumental in spreading wine and viticulture throughout the diverse countries and regions surrounding the Mediterranean sea. They traded their wines throughout the Mediterranean and planted most of the first vines in southern Europe.

Although, if a long time ago (in Lebanon), most wineries and wines were produced slightly closer to the coastal strip (and some in the Beqaa valley), nowadays all the major wineries have their vineyards in the southern Beqaa Valley, which constitutes the eastern province bordering Syria. Beqaa is a fertile valley which was also known and used for agriculture and viticulture by the Romans after the fall of the Phoenicians. Influenced by the Mediterranean climate, Beqaa is Lebanon's major source of agriculture and represent the most important farming region. The south of the valley has an average of more rainfall than the north but has roughly the same amount of sunlight, thus ideal conditions to grow vines. Also mainly due to the French who experienced and somewhat perfected Lebanese winemaking, most wineries were influenced by the winemaking techniques and grape varieties from Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley.

Lebanon also produces some arak. For the uninitiated, Arack is Lebanon's national beverage. It is traditionally produced from distilled grape must and aged for 5 to 10 years before being redistilled in the presence of anis seeds. Finally, the Arack is matured for 12 to 24 months in terracotta amphoras (usually made of red clay), the same style of drink that served Romans during antiquity from the same shaped jar.

Here is a little list of the most well known wineries:

  • Château Ksara, surely the biggest, with 70% of all the country's production.
  • Next biggest is Château Kefraya, whose former winemaker, Yves Morard, has now set up Cave Kouroum nearby.
  • Château Musar is perhaps the best known in the Western world. Musar achieved international recognition at the Bristol Wine Fair of 1979 and for a long time was the only Lebanese wine widely available in the United Kingdom. Their second wine, 'Hochar', is made in a lighter style for earlier drinking. Chateau Musar is known for transporting the grapes across the Front line during the civil war.
  • Run by Ramzi and Sami Ghosn, Massaya is the new kid on the block that has come from nowhere to become one of the most fashionable wines in France.
Although, I like some of the other estate's wines, Château Musar has always been my favorite of all the Lebanese wines that I've been tasting over the last 17 years as a winebuyer, may be for sentimental reasons due to the fact that it was the first time that I discovered and tasted a Lebanese wine during my apprentice years in London in 1997 (lot of good memories are coming back to mind talking about it...).

FYI (in short, you know me): Established in 1930 by Gaston Hochar in an old 17th century castle, Château Musar is a family-owned winery producing wines by blending Bekaa Valley grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Grenache, Obaideh, and Merwah. It was created in the cellars of an old "Mzar" castle in Ghazir, a village overlooking the Mediterranean sea, located roughly 30-40 kms north of Beirut on the coast. It is currently run by his two son Serge and Ronald. Serge, the eldest, studied oenology at the university of Bordeaux and has been the winemaker of Chateau Musar since 1959, successfully delivering nearly every vintage despite Lebanon's wartime difficulties. Ronald, the youngest, took over the finance and marketing department in 1962. And the rest is history.

Château Musar produces great reds and whites: Château Musar, the one and only (red, white and rosé); Hochar Père et Fils (red, white and rosé); Musar Cuvée (red, white and rosé); and Rubis (only in red). The blend in all of these wines depends on the quality of the vintages but also the quality of the grapes and the desired style of the final products depending on the two previous factors.

For more information about this fabulous winery, go to the estate's website: www.chateaumusar.com.lb or the importer website: www.broadbent-wines.com or even the numerous other website and blogs.

Over the last 12 years, I remember tasting quite few vintages of Château Musar, but the most memorable so far were the 1991 (which was my first vintage of Château Musar tasted in 1997, that I already described on a previous post on the Cuvée Rouge 2004), but also the 2001, 2004 and 2007 vintages.

2001 Château Musar was great yet full of sediments and esoteric, earthy notes on the nose and in the palate, but overall it was really pleasing, juicy and open up quite nicely with a little decantation (also needed because of the sediments).

2004 Château Musar Cuvée Rouge was really a revelation and the turn of new era (in my opinion) for the quality of the wine. The 2004 was really polished and extremely integrated. The fruit was generous but not overripe or overdone, with "garrigues" like aromas and flavors with hints of spice.

2007 Château Musar Cuvée Rouge Lebanon
Suggested retail price $13-$16
Distributed / Imported by Broadbent Selections in NYC

The Musar Cuvée is the second wine of Château Musar. It adapts perfectly to the Mediterranean cuisine. The wine comes from the same blending as the Château, with a higher percentage of cinsault, and without aging in oak vats. It is suitable for drinking after a year.

2007 Château Musar Cuvée Rouge exposes a dark, intense, opaque, dark cherry color. On the nose, dark cherry and dark berries aromas intermingled with earthy and slightly smoky, spicy notes with "garrigues"-like touches. One can smell the aromatic scorched earth with the spices and the aromas of the local dirt mixed with dark fruit. The palate is dark and dry with rich, opulent, young, dark fruit flavors and slightly "farouche" tannins due to its youth. Yet, it seems fairly well rounded, generous and the spiciness in the finish brings even more character to this very enjoyable middle-eastern red wine. May be not your everyday wine, yet definitely a wine to try, enjoy and discover, preferably with a substantial peace of red meat on the grill. Its richness implying a more wintery taste profile, wait until November or December and the cooler temperatures to really appreciate it even more. A decantation is needed. It may also nicely complement beef stew and spicy middle-eastern food.


LeDom du Vin

Info partly taken from Château Musar website, Broadbent Selections website, Wikipedia website and a few more here and there.

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