WHEN Ralph Hochar visited Manila last year, he stayed 24 hours. How long was he going to be in town this time? 25 hours? Hochar did stay longer (four days), enough to host a media lunch, conduct a wine orientation afterward for the staff of M Restaurant, and then lead the wine-tasting at a dinner for wine enthusiasts. He travels to Asia three or four times a year from his home base in the United Kingdom to promote the wines of Château Musar, the Lebanese winery that his grandfather founded in 1930.
When Hochar did talk about the wines, he was as dispassionate as he seemed cautious, careful not to add more gloss to the already much talked-about subject. He delved instead into history: how the Phoenicians had been making wine since ancient times in the Bekaa Valley; the French influence, hence the proliferation of the grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cinsault, Carignan and Syrah; the civil war of the 1970s that all but halted wine production in the country. But in wine circles, it is known that during the conflicts, which engulfed the country, the Hochars were the most tenacious, persisting at harvesting and winemaking despite the risks.
In Lebanon the 1976 and 1984 vintages were lost, but it was also in 1984 that Serge Hochar (Ralph’s uncle), Château Musar’s winemaker, was named by Decanter magazine as “Man of Year.” (Château Musar managed to produce 500 cases of the 1984 vintage.)
The wines of Château Musar are polarizing, Ralph Hochar admits. There is as much effusive praise as there is total dislike for them. I had read about that too—what some see as wine flaws, others view them as interesting, even adorable peculiarities. At the lunch table, Hochar let the wines do the talking; his only contribution to the conversation was how the wine was made or a story behind the wine.
Three grape varieties went into the Château Musar Rosé 2012, the indigenous white grapes Obaideh and Merwah, and the red Cinsault, French in origin. Each grape is vinified separately and then blended, much like the way Champagne rosé is made. Pale pink salmon. Peaches and subtle sweet spice. Was that rose petal I was smelling, too? I found the floral wine delicate yet firm, ending with lemony-herby notes. There is a 1994 Château Musar rosé, and, yes, that is still drinkable.
And then the Château Musar reds came: 2007, 2004, 2001, 1999. Why aren’t we having the 2006 Château Musar white? It was listed at the very bottom of the menu, to be served with dessert. That is a sweet wine—I think the thought occurred to most everyone at the table. The reds were served in pairs: the 2007 and 2004 with pasta sauced with cumin-spiked shredded oxtail; the 2001 and 1999 with lamb tagine spiced with cardamom and cumin. Restaurant M Chef Tippy Tambunting treaded carefully around the wines.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan in different proportions from year to year make up the Château Musar reds. The 2007 is the current vintage. Still in its infancy—so was the verdict from the experts at the table. But this baby was drinking nicely. Cedar, dark fruit compote, violets and a dusty tart cherry finish. This was more peppery as the 2004 had a savory, meaty profile. The 2001 is Cinsault dominant. Dried fig, dried rose petals, raisins, talcum powder, a meaty aroma like beef—there was a lot going on in the glass. The 1999 was even darker in color than the 2001. More prominent cedar aromas here, and that whiff of funk that some like or absolutely detest. The 2001 is Cinsault dominant, the 1999 has more Cabernet Sauvignon. But both were born in the drought years from 1999 to 2003, when there was less than two weeks of rain. And where the 2001 had a lighter, Burgundy-ish mouthfeel, the 1999 was heftier, with a touch of smoke, finishing with black olive and cigar box notes. For old vintages, open the bottles at least 10 hours earlier to dissipate the ‘off’ aromas (that others find pleasing)—I remember Hochar saying.
At dessert time the 2006 Château Musar white’s dryness made an interesting counterpoint to the tart-sweet goodness of the apple tart. Made from very old, ungrafted Merwah and Obaideh, 120-year-old vines in the case of Obaideh. A gorgeous pale gold with an intriguing sherry-like note underlining pear jam, honey and floral aromas. There was not so much power as richness here, down to the grippy, astringent mouthfeel so characteristic of red wine. The 1954 Chateau Musar white is now almost black—but is still drinkable, Hochar said with a smile.
Talk about longevity. And white wine with astonishing astringency. Funk and vinegary aromas in the red wines. Flaws or endearing quirks? There is no middle ground for Chateau Musar wines. But whether one likes them or not, there is no denying that these wines are absolutely different.
Which Chateau Musar red did you like best? At the lunch table, the 1999 was the hands-down favorite. But I can still remember how the 2006 Chateau Musar white was drinking like a red.
Chateau Musar is available at Premium Wine Exchange, Ground Floor, Smith Bell Building, 2294 Chino Roces Extension, Barangay Magallanes, Makati City. Shop hours are from hours are from 11 am to 8pm, Monday to Saturday. For more information, visit www.pwxchange.com.ph.