Wine from a war zone… part 2

Chateau Musar tasting at Regional Wines & Spirits

Tuesday 5 September 2017

It’s a very rainy, very chilly, supposedly spring night here in Wellington but the wines we are tasting are from a far warmer place – you could even call the Bekaa Valley hot. It’s in the north east of Lebanon, a country better known for war than for wine.

The wines we are tasting come from Chateau Musar, founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar, who planted his first vines after returning from training in winemaking in Bordeaux, France.

The original name of the winery was Mzar, which was later lengthened for ease of pronunciation and spelling. The winery was inspired by the French, who colonised Lebanon after World War I. Lebanon became independent in 1943. It’s on the eastern part of the Mediterranean sea, so it is less than 200 kilometres from Cyprus.

The tasting

2016 Musar Jeune Rose

4 stars

Refreshing rose – it’s bone dry, has no oak, a modern label and is made intentionally to be a paler colour to cater for modern tastes (we do drink with our eyes, don’t we – don’t answer that). This wine is now 85% Cinsault and 15% Mourvedre; a classic combo from Provence in the south of France. Two years ago it was 100% Cinsault and a far darker coloured wine as a result.

Love the bone dry taste.

2014 Musar Jeune Red 

3.5 stars

Adaptation and change are the message of this wine, which contains Syrah for the first time (a decision that took two to three years of ‘heavy discussion’ at the winery, says Ralph Hochar). It’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Cinsault; made from young vines with no oak use – it’s a drink-me-now style – soft and approachable with flavours of intense fruit, dark spice (cloves) and chocolate notes.

2012 Hochar Pere et Fils 

3.5 stars

This wine is now a blend of three grapes; Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache (it was formerly a blend of these three with a fourth – Carignan). The vines are older at 30-40 years of age and the yields are lower than in the Musar Jeune wine, so the flavours are noticeably more concentrated with …. each grape spends 4-6 months in French oak, it is then blended and cellared at the winery for another 3-4 years prior to release, so the 2012 is the current release. It will arrive in New Zealand prior to Christmas this year.

2011 Hochar Pere et Fils

4 stars

Tastes like a cross between Nebbiolo and Chateauneuf du Pape, to me; high acid, firm tannins, red fruit, juicy long finish… succulent, bone dry, complex. This six year old wine has a complex range of flavours spanning red fruit (classic juicy flavours of a Chateauneuf du Pape), spice (cloves, cardamon) and black fruit (Cabernet Sauvignon). It has a medium body and high but balanced acidity adds freshness and length. Intriguing wine.

The flagship wines

The flagship wine was created by Serge Hochar who was 23 years old when he studied wine with Emile Peynaud at the University of Bordeaux.

2008 Chateau Musar

4 stars

This wine has been made from certified organic grapes since 1996. The vineyards are certified organic via independent auditing by an Italian company.

It’s made from Carignan, Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Mourvedre, fermented entirely from wild yeasts and the wine is not filtered or fined, so sediment can be heavy after a couple of decades of aging. Each grape spends one year in French oak and two years in concrete vats.

“At the end of the day, sediment is a natural part of the wine but fining would be us doing something to the wine and we would rather the wine aged naturally and had some sediment rather than us doing things to the wine,” says Ralph Hochar.

It’s an earthy wine with intense flavours of red and baked fruit and a savoury undertow, high acid, a long finish – it’s a fascinating style of wine.

2006 Chateau Musar

A beautiful drink now; savoury spice, sweet spice, red fruit, super fresh in flavour with so many different aromas coming through in every sip.

This drinks well right now and has the ability and potential to age for longer in cool dark cellar conditions.

Thanks to Ralph Hochar for coming to Regional Wines & Spirits to share his time and knowledge of Lebanon and its most famous wines from Chateau Musar.

Challenging and complex: the 2017 vintage in Hawke’s Bay…

Here is one perspective on vintage 2017 in Hawke’s Bay… More will follow on this site. Watch this space…

Two words beginning with ‘c’ sum up vintage 2017 in Hawke’s Bay for Bordeaux oenologist Ludwig Vanneron, consultant to the small Waimarama Estate: challenging and complex. I asked him to share his thoughts on how he responds to heavy rainfall pre-harvest on late ripening  grapes. Here are his thoughts.

“When it’s rainy in Bordeaux, we say it is better to pick grapes more ripe under rain than green (and dry) with sunshine.

“There are actually several factors to take into account: dilution (water makes berries bigger), tightness (compacité) of bunches, risk of burst, split, and rot infection (where it starts, and how fast it grows depending on the vineyard, the plots and the grapes).

“The look,  analysis and weight of grapes can give an idea of the dilution effect. If we must pick green grapes like unripe Cabernet (high pyrazine content), fining, oaky adjuncts and micro-oxygenation could improve the wines.

“Bursting effects and rot infection require high attention and care. Everyday we have to take a look in the vineyard and check how it grows. If it is located only in some bunches, which are very tight, and weather is forecast to improve, then a healthy sort by hand before picking can be done. Then, another problem is the cost, but making good or very good wines in bad conditions is always more expensive.

“Rot infection requires a change to enological practices by taking care of aeration and oxidation effects, due to laccase compounds produced by botrytis. If there is lots of oxidation, mostly from the beginning, as soon as must is free out of the berries, then laccase starts and we lose aromas and colour degradation is more sensitive as well. So adjunctions of specific tanins (proanthocyanidic) are required, and fermentation needs to start quickly by putting yeasts straight into the vats. The goal is to fix the colour, as much as possible, by using other types of tannins and adapted winemaking practices.”

What is the biggest challenge in a rainy vintage when you would like to leave grapes hanging on the vines for longer?

“Our only goal is to make the best wine we can from the best grapes possible. The first point to consider is the work in the vineyard and how the vines were managed during the growing season to maximise healthy ripe grapes.

“Among the keys are: well timed pruning, the spread of bunches from one vine to the next, the removal of young shoots (pampres, in French), the quality of tucking on trellising system (main shoots have to be straight up, no crossing), removal of lateral shoots, leaf plucking, crop thinning, applications of specific products (natural defense stimulators, among others) and timing along with quality of sprays for treatments.

“The type of grapes is important to consider. If red, they may be able to  wait, in the anticipation they could become more ripe, even if the risk of rot infection is high (natural tanins in the berries act like a fence against botrytis attack). For white grapes, we must have a different approach as we are looking after aromas first but rot produces laccase and early fining of must (at settling) helps to create clean juice early, which is a good start for keeping varietal flavours.

“To leave grapes hanging on the vines for longer, the aim is to reduce green characters. Pyrazines are at a higher level during veraison, then they decrease week after week during maturation. Merlot is easier as pyrazines are not as high as they are in Cabernet, and the maturation time required to get ripe grapes is approximately 45-50 days after the colour change of veraison whereas Cabernet Sauvignon’s is 60-70 days. This makes it more difficult to get lower amounts of pyrazines in berries.

How can you eliminate green pyrazine flavours from Cabernet?

“One way is to remove the first leaf in front of the bunches at an early stage (2 to 3mm berry size). Then by doing this practice, you “cut” the factory of pyrazine production, and the level at the veraison time is lower, making easier to reach ripening at the end because we start with lower quantities of pyrazine, so we can expect lower amounts when the grapes are ripe.”

What are the key differences in the winemaking process for Cabernet grapes harvested earlier than ideal?

“The risks are pyrazine and green flavours, including green and harsh tannins. Specific fining like PVPP, the use of micro-oxigenation, combined with external tannins adjuncts (toasted oak chips) and adapted enological practices during the winemaking roadmap will make the wines taste better.”

Will this impact on pruning and crop levels for next year?

“No. Each vintage is different and has its own characteristics. Frost or hail are much more annoying for the years that follow, compared to rain.”

Wines of the week… 17 August

Let’s just say it’s already been a surrounded-by-new-bottles kind of week because it’s only Wednesday and here we are with a best of the bunch blog. It’s no wonder, really. Not only is New Zealand wine one of the first things we see at the supermarket, it’s the sixth biggest export earner for this country – a significant rise from ninth biggest this time last year.

The following wines were tasted alongside a range of other comparable wines, which were all from New Zealand and all relatively new, with some very recently bottled, as the two 2016 wines show.

Chardonnay of the week

2014 Domaine Rewa Central Otago Chardonnay 14% ABV 

Domaine Rewa Chardonnay is made from grapes grown on a 5.5 hectare vineyard at Pisa, a short drive north of Cromwell in one of Central Otago’s most sun drenched grape growing sub-regions. This Chardonnay highlights what I believe is the strong potential in Otago for high quality whites, due to this wine’s rich flavours, full body, fresh vibrant (high) acidity and balanced creamy softness. Lingering flavours of ripe citrus, nectarines and white peach add to its appeal.

Biodynamics is a philosophy of growing plants sustainably, which includes, among other things, planting, pruning and harvesting according to the phases of the moon. It also includes no systemic sprays, such as herbicides, fungicides, insecticides or pesticides. 

Top Pinot Gris

2016 Jules Taylor Marlborough Pinot Gris 13.5% ABV $23.99

There’s a reason Jules Taylor Pinot Gris keeps appearing on the wine lists at the Gypsy Tea Rooms and The Elbow Room – two small but busy neighbourhood wine bars in Auckland. This Pinot Gris consistently rates highly (with me) for its intensely fresh flavours of subtle white fleshed fruit, such as white pears, white peach and lychees. It’s dry with refreshing crispness and a medium body, all giving it a strong lead on many of its competitors. This is a very good wine with 3 to 4 years time up its sleeve, but why wait? It tastes great now.

Disclaimer: I select the wines for both the Gypsy Tea Rooms and The Elbow Room wine bars in Auckland.

Sensational Sauvignon 

2015 Alluviale Sauvignon Blanc Semillon Hawke’s Bay 13% ABV $23.99

Hawke’s Bay winemaker Ant McKenzie bought the highly revered Alluviale brand earlier this year (2016) and has launched this wine recently, which brings his love of Bordeaux’ best to bear in this dry, fleshy, crisp white wine, which is pale in colour with intense aromas of lemon grass, lime juice, green apple and brie, thanks to the 14% portion of barrel fermented Semillon, which is nicely balanced by the crisp 81% Sauvignon Blanc and the 5% Muscat Blanc, which adds an aromatic je ne said quo. Not only stunning wine but outstanding value for money.

Best orange wine

2015 Aurum Organic Amber Wine Central Otago 13.5% ABV 

Lucie Lawrence is a French winemaker who married a Kiwi viticulturist and settled in Central Otago where she makes a trickle of the region’s best Pinot Noirs – and dabbles with 60 cases of this orange Pinot Gris. It was fermented with wild yeasts on skins (hence the orange hue) and bottled unfined and unfiltered. The wine is bone dry, with high (but balanced) acidity, and a light creamy influence adding softness. If rose is your thing, try this adventurous organic amber wine.

Best newcomer 2016

2016 Jules Taylor Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc $ 23.99 13% ABV

Juicy, fresh and brand spanking new, this intensely tropical tasting Sauvignon Blanc shines the spotlight on the freshest wines on the market in this country right now – 2016 whites. It’s a super fresh sunshine-in-a-glass style of wine with tropical fruit – pineapples, papayas – a medium body and long finish. What’s not to like.

Top Central Pinot Noir

2013 Domaine Rewa Central Otago Pinot Noir 13% ABV

Pinot Noir is the grape that occupies 80% of Central Otago’s vineyards, and this one is made from a single vineyard at Lowburn, just north of Cromwell. All the grapes in this wine were hand harvested and destemmed prior to fermentation, which keeps the dark fruit flavours to the fore while 8.5 months in French oak softens its youthful vibrancy so that each sip is a silky experience. A delicious newcomer made in small quantities, which puts the country’s southernmost wine region’s best foot forward.