Wednesday, May 22, 2013
By JOE APPEL
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about Chateau Musar, a famous winery in Lebanon that is unique for many reasons. The column never ran because it was scarcely publishable. It was a torrent of impressions, associations, contemplations and historical fragments. (If you're interested, it's now available at my blog, soulofwine.com. What follows is my second attempt to tell people why these wines matter.
The earlier, unpublished reverie emerged from a struggle, where I began describing how I felt about the wines, and offered some background information based on tasting, interviews and reading. But that conventional approach didn't work. I felt ashamed that in the face of wines this mysterious, this magical, this distinct, all I could offer was, "The wines are from A; a guy named B makes them; they taste like X/Y/Z."
Yes, the wines of Serge Hochar, winemaker at Chateau Musar, are courageous. Making objects of beauty in what has, for most of the past four decades, been a war zone is courageous.
Hochar's been making those wines with disregard for "international tastes" and willingness to welcome and include "strange" flavors if they show up. He seems to be seeking only to express something indelibly true about soil and culture.
He is a poet, guru and philosopher, and he midwifes wines that do for me what the greatest art or meditation does -- take you down deep inside, and simultaneously connect you to those vast expanses beyond yourself. They offer new ways of being. They scoff at the police.
Wine is always a very personal thing, and Musar wines are perhaps especially personal. You might not be struck by their magic, and might deny there's even magic in them at all. A good friend whose feelings about wine usually align with -- or more often, lead -- mine has so far been nonplussed by the ones he has tasted.
Like this friend, I've not drunk nearly enough of them, which are made at three levels. The highest level, Chateau Musar ($38), is currently available in the 2004 vintage. And 2003, 2002, 2001 and so on back to 1998, through Easterly Wine.
You can also obtain just about every other vintage going back to 1954. Those will come, with the aid of Musar's American importer, Broadbent Selections, directly from the winery's cellar, which is dug deep enough under Beirut to protect it from the decades of mortar shells and torment that have raged directly overhead. Photos exist of tanks driving around the vineyards.
All Musar wines are made in the most uncompromisingly natural way possible, with grapes that have always been grown organically. The majority are Cinsault, Carignan, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds; Vermentino, Viognier, Chardonnay and the indigenous Lebanese Merwah and Obaideh for the whites.
After harvest, the grapes are transported from the vineyards to the winery. This is a journey of two hours when times are good, but it has taken up to 10 days during the bad times of war.
Once they arrive, each varietal begins separate vinification. The first year in concrete tanks, a second in used oak and a third year back in concrete then followed by blending just before bottling.
Nothing is done to stabilize the wines, filter or alter their natural expressions. Brettanomyces and volatile acidity, aspects considered flaws by some but simply natural elements of these most natural wines, come up in the Chateau Musar and Hochar Pere et Fils.
This latter line, Musar's second tier, is in the 2007 vintage right now. The red ($27) has flavors of cinnamon, figs, incense and smoke; aromas both stinky and fresh, a body both shimmery and fathomless. When I drink it, I taste life and death in the same instant. I'm glad someone who understands life this deeply is making wine.
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