A gem from Lebanon

I have a summer crush bordering on an obsession. Her name is Chateau Musar Jeune Rose. We met at a local market. From the moment I first laid my eyes on this beautiful bottle, I wished it could be my little secret. Alas, it turns out she has long had admirers all around the world.

Chateau Musar first arrived on the international wine map at the 1979 Bristol Wine Fair when renowned auctioneer and taster Michael Broadbent selected Chateau Musar 1967 as the “discovery of the fair.”

Gaston Hochar began making wine in 1930. The boundaries of Lebanon had not been set yet. Wanting to ensure the premises would lie inside the newly demarcated country, he chose to place the winery in the family’s 18th century castle overlooking the Mediterranean at Ghazir, which is located just north of Beirut. Its name in Arabic is ‘M’zar,’ meaning a place of extraordinary beauty. Gaston adapted this name for his new enterprise.

As the company expanded, new cellars were built into the mountainside, providing ideal conditions for wine cellaring. The cellars were so secure they were used as air raid shelters by the villagers of Ghazir during the Lebanese Civil War. Despite war in Lebanon and ongoing tensions, with the exception of the 1976 vintage, wine has been produced at the Chateau every year, with employees sometimes working under high-risk conditions. The 1984 was made despite difficulties in transporting the grapes to the winery. It has not yet been released commercially.

Musar’s vineyards are located two hours away from the winery in the Bekka Valley. Forming part of the Fertile Crescent, the area was among the first in the history of the world to benefit from the formal cultivation of grapes. The center of the valley is farther south than any part of Spain or Italy.

The vines are blessed in two ways. Situated 3,300 feet above sea level, the altitude helps maintain a relatively moderate average temperature of 77 degrees. Despite 300 days of sunshine a year, the elevation provides cool nights, an important respite that allows grapes to ripen evenly. The calcareous, stone and gravel soils are an ideal mixture to produce high-quality grapes.

All of Musar’s wines are produced naturally with a “non-interventionist” philosophy. The winery was the first in Lebanon to implement organically certified viticulture.

Musar’s rose is made from the Cinsault grape, a varietal from France’s Rhone Valley. Using the classic “saignee” (bled) method, pink juice is pressed and separated from the red grape skins. It is fermented in cement-lined vats and is bottled without any oak aging a year following the harvest.

The 2010 vintage is dry, pretty and deeply colored, with aromas of strawberries, raspberries, red apple skins, almonds and a hint of rosewater. The palate is full of fresh red fruits with strawberries and red cherries dominating. It is well structured with good acidity and a long mellow finish of apricots and strawberry coulis.

This wine pairs well with salmon, shellfish and tomato-based pasta dishes. I most prefer it on its own with a snack of nuts and olives.

Open a bottle at your own risk — you, too, may become entranced.

Derek M. LaVallee, partner at Kemp Goldberg Partners and certified wine buff, can be reached at dereklavallee@hotmail.com.