The wine world has many stories of triumph over adversity yet, surely, the most remarkable is that of Chateau Musar. Musar’s vineyards are in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and its winery just outside Beirut, a couple of hours drive away over the mountains. As a result, more than half of the vintages since 1975 have been made in a war zone or, at least, with the threat of war close by. So, it is a truly heroic achievement that, in all that time, only 1 year has been missed.
And, when you taste the wines, as I did recently with the Bristol Tasting Circle, this desire to survive comes through. Few of Musar’s wines are designed for drinking young. The reds we tasted went as far back as 1996, the whites to 1991 and even the rosés – elsewhere often made for drinking within a year or so of the vintage – included a bottle from 2004.
The key to this longevity is a mixture of the growing conditions and the winemaking. Although the Bekaa Valley sits at a warm latitude of 34˚N, its altitude – over 1000m (3000ft) above sea level – gives cool nights which help to retain the acidity in the organically-grown grapes – a vital element in making these full-bodied wines so well balanced.
In the winery, everything is done with minimal intervention: indigenous yeasts, little added sulphur, no fining or filtering; simply harvest clean, ripe grapes and then let the natural processes do the rest.
The reds we tasted – interestingly before the whites – were mainly based around southern French varieties, particularly Cinsault and Carignan with a little Cabernet Sauvignon added, while the distinctive, spicy and honeyed dry whites were made from 2 local specialities, Obaideh and Merwah (although Jancis Robinson MW suggests that they may really be Chardonnay and Semillon, respectively).
This was a fascinating tasting of some unique and heroic wines. All are available from local independent wine merchant ‘The Little Tipple’, email firstname.lastname@example.org for details and prices.