Paul Blow

On my first sniff, the 2000 Château Musar blanc smells flawed. Or, if not flawed, then seriously funky, in the way some primitive old-world wines (like those from Eastern Europe, Georgia, or southern Italy, made in ancient casks inside moldy cellars from unfashionable grape varieties) sometimes do. It is waxy, and redolent of rich, ripe honey and an expiring bouquet of flowers. While there is something off-putting in the wine, there is also something intriguing and seductive. I can’t stop picking up and smelling my glass. But I’m not sure if this is because of the wine itself or the mystery behind it.

Said to be one of the world’s great white wines, Château Musar blanc is extremely old-world. It’s grown in the high mountains of Lebanon and made from grape varieties I’d never heard of—Obeideh and Merwah—which are said to have been taken back to Europe from the Middle East by Crusaders and are probably the ancestors of Chardonnay and Sémillon. The wine’s producer, Serge Hochar, visiting from Beirut, tells me, “Don’t drink it too fast. This is a very young wine and it needs many hours to unfold. We should, in fact, have opened it yesterday.” It’s not often one hears an eight-year-old white wine being described as young. Nevertheless, I sip it slowly.

Hochar makes an equally famous red wine (a blend of Carignane, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cinsault), but calls the white his “first red.” At tastings, he places vintages of the white wine after the red, which is unusual. And, when he talks about the wine, he does so not so much with personal pride (though there’s plenty of that) but with reverence for its past. “These are some of the oldest grape varieties in history and have been grown by people in this place for more than 7,000 years,” he says. “They are perfectly integrated with this soil.”

To demonstrate the value of the adaptive harmony between site and vine, he mentions that a few years ago he planted some European varieties like Viognier and Chardonnay. “These grapes mature around the 10th to 15th of August and make a wine over 14 degrees alcohol.” The Obeideh and Merwah on the other hand “don’t ripen until the 15th of October onward and have trouble making 12 degrees.” In a hot, dry, and often brutal climate (the vines are dry-farmed), those statistics are astounding.

More astounding is the behavior of the wine. Most wines start to degrade after being opened. This one seems degraded upon being poured, but magically begins to sharpen and firm up over the course of the dinner. The gravelly limestone soil in which it’s grown starts to seem apparent in its mineral texture. The cool nights at 4,000 feet start to assert themselves in the wine’s tightening acidity. I leave some in my glass, and after dessert go back and sniff it again. Where the wine had once smelled tired, it now smells fresh. It reminds me of the character in Andrew Sean Greer’s book The Confessions of Max Tivoli, who was born an old man and became younger as he aged. Evidently, the red behaves similarly.

This tendency toward reverse aging is only one of the many remarkable things about wines from Château Musar, considering that, located just 15 miles northeast of Beirut, it survived a brutal 15-year civil war starting in 1975 that killed at least 100,000 people and rained shells in the Bekaa Valley. (Because of this, there was no 1976 vintage; the grapes died on the vine.) Hochar has good reason to be philosophical. “What you taste,” he says, “is truth. Wine is a gift, a miracle of life.”

Try the Musar blanc. Decant it for several hours, tasting it along the way as it evolves. It’s an amazing way to connect with another place and the palates of people who drank such wine in 5000 BCE. The final miracle? The excellent 1999 vintage can be had for less than $35. And the 2000 should become available soon at a similar price.

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