Dinner with Chateau Musar

20130226_191059_20130307203625702In the last couple of years I have come to increasingly rely on Twitter and Facebook to keep me up to speed with all that is happening. I have met many great people I would not otherwise have met thanks to a combined passion for wine and intensive use of social media. The drawback is that you forget the majority of people still go out to the theatre, dinners and wine tastings and have found out about all these without the help of the twittersphere or the facebooked.

And so it was that we almost missed out on the Chateau Musar tasting dinner, organised by Sam’s Chophouse and leisurely marshalled by Manchester’s first and oldest active sommelier, Mr George Bergier. I had been craving for more info on this event, peeling their facebook page, plucking through their rare tweets, trying to see the hidden link on their otherwise dead website… In truth I can’t even remember how I got to know this dinner was on. When we got there however, well clearly there are communication channels in use that I must be estranged with because it was packed. But the fact that for once Miss Mash and I felt a bit younger than usual may have been a pointer that there are other ways to learn about such events. Do people still use actual mail these days? I would have thought being from the early 80’s I have the best of both worlds but I clearly moved too far towards the geek side.

We did find out more in the end, we made it to Sam’s Chophouse on the day (and on time, would you believe) for what we were hoping was going to be a belter. On arrival, the bar area was heaving. We both endulged in a cheeky glass of white as I thought most of the Chateau Musar wines would be red.

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I had a glass of Domaine La Croix Belle VdP 2011 which was indicated as a blend of Vermentino and Sauvignon Blanc. Strange because the winery’s website does not show any wine with vermentino (although it is increasingly grown in Languedoc-Roussillon) so I am not sure about the details on that one. A buttery nose but fresh fruit of peach and apple on the palate and a touch of oak. Miss Mash had the Fortant from Robert Skalli, again from the Languedoc, but 100% Sauvignon Blanc. It was crisp and dry with lemon citrus and green apples. On the palate it starts off quite smooth but a grainy acidity is going crescendo on the finish; definitely no oak for that one. Oysters please ? Same grape, grown in the same climate, two very different styles. Goes to show how much impact the choices made in the winery have on the wine.

Musar Jeune 2010While everyone was being shown to their table, we were served a glass of the Musar Jeune Rosé 2010 which is made of 100% Cinsault with no oak ageing. I don’t drink rosé often and I have rarely enjoyed one much before (maybe there is a causality here) but I found this wine to be pretty impressive. A delicate rose (as in the flower) fragrance on the nose and flint or minerals. On the palate, there was a gentle burst of beautiful strawberries and raspberries. Then it became a bit creamier, adding weight. The fruits got riper (red cherry), with great acidity, some pepper spice and savoury notes and towards the end there was a warmth from the alcohol despite the 12.5% abv. A great wine, getting on serious, that doesn’t even break the bank at approx. £11. Definitely keeping that in mind if the summer ever shows up.

Before the starters George Bergier introduced Chateau Musar, a Lebanese winery based North of Beirut although the vineyards are a couple of hours drive in the Beeka Valley between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains, quite high in altitude. Ralph Hochar, representing the 3rd generation of the Hochar Family who owns Chateau Musar, deals with the trading side of the business and was there to give us first hand the spirit of the Musar wines. From what I have read, all Chateau Musar events consistently offer the now very polished Musar’s history speech. I do respect history and the people who are keen not to forget the mistakes of the past. This is not the subject of this post however and I invite you to visit the Chateau Musar’s website for more info on the Beeka Valley winery’s painstaking journey through the 20th century.

To go with the rabbit terrine starter, which was tasty enough (although mine had tiny bits of bones in it), we were served a glass of the Musar Mosaic red 2010. Mosaic is a more affordable range destined for the catering industry so if I understood this right, you are unlikely to find this wine in supermarkets or at your local vintner and probably still quite rare in restaurants up north.

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This red is made from a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault, the proportions of which vary depending on the vintage and like the “Jeune” range, is not aged in oak. It was a pretty smooth and drinkable juice, fruity and silky yet vibrant, a soft peppery spice from the Syrah, smooth but young and fiery, grippy tannins giving it a robust structure. A hint of chocolate and pepper on the finish which was not the longest but still quite pleasant.  It goes at about £11 like the rosé but since you should mostly find it in restaurants it will probably set you back a bit more than that. I didn’t think it was well suited to the terrine though, which was no match for the tannins and the strong flavours of the wine. The elderflower and beets helped but the baby leeks brought the drying tannins to the fore, leaving everything else behind. I think the rosé or possibly one of their whites may have worked better.

Next was the fish course, a very light but flavoursome cured salmon, smoked eel, potatoes and watercress. The salmon was delicately perfumed, the tiny bits of eel were very tender rather than tasty and the whole thing was quite a nicely balanced and light second starter. It was matched to the Chateau Musar Rosé 2004 which is made from a blend of indigenous white grapes (Obaideh and Merwah) and up to 5% of the red grape Cinsault for the colour.

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A nose of strawberry milkshake and red cherries, the palate provided ripe fruit sweetness, a soft, creamy texture and medium acidity. Considering this rosé was over 8 years old it was doing pretty well and despite my simple notes, we thought it was very good with great length. It didn’t have the complexity of its red siblings but it delivered what many would expect from a rosé: pure, healthy ripe fruit, a moreish mouthfeel and a great finish. It matched the creamy potatoes and the texture of the fish whilst adding some fresh acidity to the dish.

This wine is only made in years when the grapes can reach the required level of maturity and it is therefore harder to find. The vines are low yielding and Ralph claimed that only around 600 cases are produced. Yet you can find this wine for about £20 which I think is well worth it. I must have got in touch with my feminine side during that dinner because so far the rosés have impressed more than the reds and that’s very unusual.

20130226_205935_20130307211247393The main dish came a bit as the expected star of the evening. Not so much because of the fantastic duck and potato gratin, which was very well cooked, but because the true Chateau Musar was coming to the table. Not one but two reds from the classic Chateau Musar range, the 2001 and 2003.

These are made of a peculiar mix of classic grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon provides the Bordeaux black fruit and potential for complexity in ageing and Syrah and Cinsault from the Rhone valley bring in some perfumed notes of wild flowers and a bit of spice from the Syrah. The vines are 40 years old on average which is getting quite old and the yields are reasonably low as a result: 35 hectolitre of wine produced per hectare of vineyard. Each varietal is separately fermented in cement vats with a bit of lees ageing during the first 6 months. The wine is then aged in French oak casks, using only a third of new cask for each vintage. Blending occurs after two years and bottling a year later. The bottles are only released to the market after four more years’ ageing. For example, the 2005 vintage is the most recent release from the Hochars.

Using the opposite approach to blind tasting, what could one expect from these two wines bar the climatic differences of both vintages? Cabernet Sauvignon should bring in some black fruit like black currant or blackberry and some under-ripeness like green pepper. The Syrah which is Cab Sauv’s main rival across the world, should bring in dark fruits too but also some pepper spice, although with age it is expected to bring in more herbaceous notes like grassy type flavours. The Cinsault is not known for its flavours so much as it is for fragrance and should participate to the bouquet of aromas. Its low tannins should help smoothen the wine a bit too.

So, what did it end up like:

Chateau Musar 2003 – clear and bright with a slight orange tinge on the rim. Fresh dark fruits with cinnamon and cloves at first, it smells pure and beautiful. A warm perfume no doubt reminiscent of the Beeka Valley’s flora. On the palate I noted pith at first, probably this herbaceousness brought in by an aged Syrah, then fruit with good concentration followed by peppery spice. It still is quite vibrant and lively with good level of acidity and juicy fruit. The oak is present but subtle bringing notes of vanilla and cloves. It’s really good to drink now whilst it still has some fruit but it will probably keep for quite a few more years. Whether I would like it then…I guess I’ll have to revisit. It picked up beautifully on the duck flavours and the gravy but could sometimes take over on the flavour front.

Chateau Musar 2001 – A completely different animal. The nose is still shy, more reserved. Not sure if that is what is called ‘closed’. There is some juicy fruit like red cherries but there isn’t the exuberance of ripeness and spice from the 2003. It’s lighter and juicier with fine but sharp tannins. It still tastes pretty youthful, like it doesn’t yet know what it’s supposed to be. Unfortunately I do not get to drink aged wine very often. I cannot say whether it has not reached maturity yet, or indeed if it is the wine it is supposed to be in which case it requires a more acute palate than mine. These wines can sometimes keep for decades so maybe the 2001’s time has not yet come but in truth, I don’t really know. I still really enjoyed it and I think it has a certain elegance shrouded in mystery. In fact, I thought it was a better match for the duck because the tannins could cut through the meat but the more subtle flavours were supportive rather than overpowering.

I really enjoyed the opportunity of having the same wine from two different vintages side by side, and having the time to work them out. Whilst the 2001 was a better match for the food, the 2003 displayed greater readiness and complexity with plenty going on and I would happily drink it on its own or maybe with slow-cooked lamb or venison stew.

Towards dessert time we started getting happily embroiled in conversations with Ralph, George and our table neighbours and I must admit I was being a bit less diligent with my notes. I need to improve on my multitasking abilities but one has to remember that food and wine are first and foremost a matter of enjoyment.20130226_221707_20130307212306196

The dessert was a roasted apple bakewell tart with toasted almonds and ice cream and I thought it had spent a bit too long in the oven (the tart, not the ice cream of course). But I can see how this dinner format can bring added challenges to the kitchen staff with a delayed service for 25 dinners because the winos are getting into the swing of things.

It was served with the white Chateau Musar 200x. As you can maybe see from the photo of the menu above, the last digit of the year was not given. But we know it’s a wine made in the naughties and we know that Chateau Musar do not release their new wines straight after fermentation so it should be anything from 2000 to 2005.

The white is made of the two white grapes mentioned earlier: Obaideh and Merwah. The wine was a great, shiny gold colour. The low yields (10 – 20 hl/ha) make this wine quite rich and concentrated but it was still very elegant and subtle about its richness. It has body as well as lemon acidity with some yeasty and oaky flavours and a bit of flint on the long finish. I can see why this wine was chosen to match with the dessert: the oak flavours matching the toasted almonds, the yeasty favours matching the pastry and the acidity matching the apple. The whole thing ended up being quite naughty…err nutty sorry. Shame the tart was a bit dry but thanks to the wine, it went down a treacle…err treat.

I think overall it’s fair to say that we had a really good time and were well catered for. I would recommend the Musar wines and the Chophouse food to anyone and certainly look forward to the next event they put up.

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