New York State Wines and Chateau Musar

I really enjoy going to wine tastings from more obscure wine growing regions. From developing wine regions, you get to sample their latest and best wines, and get a good feel for what is worth buying now, and what to look for in the future. From regions which have a wine-growing tradition, but aren’t usually seen in the UK market, you get a chance to taste some of the culture and history of the region, and perhaps some grape varieties you’ve never seen before. These tastings are always a great learning experience, whatever you think of the wines.

Recently, the Oxford Blind Tasting Society was visited by Sue Chambers, who is the UK’s sole importer of New York State wines. She brought along a mixture of red and white wines, all international grape varieties, and a good deal of literature which was very helpful in picking apart New York State wines. There are a number of key wine regions, but the ones we tasted from (and the ones I had heard of previously) were the Finger Lakes, and Long Island. Because of the hilly geography, I’ve heard the Finger Lakes compared climatically to the Mosel in Germany, and because of the coastal influence, Long Island compared to Bordeaux. Impressive comparisons, if the wines can live up to them.

The white wines we tasted, I have to say, didn’t get me excited. The rieslings from the Finger Lakes were great on the nose, peachy and floral, but disappointing on the palate. The off-dry version in particular was a little sugar syrup-y. I usually have no problem blind tasting sauvignon blanc, but I completely missed the NY state one, as it was missing the greenness, and ended up, I thought, pretty bland. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t bad wines, but, for the price, I wouldn’t choose these over their French or German competitors.

The reds on the other hand, were a complete eye-opener. The first wine was a cabernet franc, which most people thought was a pinot noir, that’s how fruity, soft, and elegant it was- not much like the terse and leafy French counterpart. Next was a pinot noir, generous and fruity, but well structured. Lastly were three merlots, the flagship grape of Long Island, and all three were great. Spicy, plummy, drinking these was almost like drinking a fruitcake. Combined with the natural acidity that comes from the maritime influence, these wines would make great food wines, and apparently have very good ageing potential. Even though they weren’t cheap, I think they were good value for money, and worth looking into.

New York State wines we tasted at the Oxford Blind Tasting Society. Photo courtesy of LJ Ruan.

Some of the New York State wines we tasted at the Oxford Blind Tasting Society. Photo courtesy of LJ Ruan.

From one of the world’s newer wine regions to one of the world’s oldest: Chateau Musar in Lebanon. At another Oxford University wine society, Bacchus, Ralph Hochar, the third-generation owner of Chateau Musar, came to do a tasting and present some of their wines, and to say he was enthusiastic about wines and wine-making is putting it lightly. He mentioned Musar have recently launched a new range of wines, “Musar Jeune”, meant to be more approachable, easier drinking wines, which I was excited to try. For those who don’t know Chateau Musar, they have a cult following in the wine world, and represent excellent value for money- we had their Hochar on St Catherine’s MCR wine list at one point. You can buy some of their wines from The Wine Society.

Although Chateau Musar has only been producing wines since the seventies, Lebanon has a long wine-growing tradition, witnessed by temples to Bacchus (the god, not the wine society…) built by the Romans, and has several indigenous grapes. Being a warm country, they can produce a large selection of grape varieties, in particular the grape cinsault, which needs hot dry climates to flourish. The wines are incredibly fruity, and with altitude, they can produce wines with good acidity which help the ageing potential. Interestingly, Chateau Musar only release wines around seven years after the vintage, with their latest release being 2005, choosing to store the wines themselves. Lebanese wine-making also has an unusual complication, with wars every now and then, which mean some vintages don’t end up being produced.

Since I’ve tasted a good number of their red wines previously, they were what I expected. Fruit-driven, crisp acidity, soft elegant tannins, lovely to drink. The whites and rosés were very interesting though. Very dark, almost amber, in colour, the whites (from 2004 and 2000) tasted a little like a Bordeaux blend, with a waxy, citrussy quality. The 2004 rosé was my star of the evening, with such a fine delicate strawberry flavour, I’ve been looking to see where I can get hold of some. Their new range, the “Musar Jeune”, I thought were well made wines, but not for me. Easy drinking they were, very fruity, but nothing really complex going on. If you like that style, they are worth a look.

Overall, a couple of interesting tastings and interesting wines. I’ll continue to keep a watch on New York State wine-making, particularly the reds, and tasting some of Musar’s range I hadn’t seen before was very exciting. If you regularly buy from one region or one grape variety, try something different and off-the-beaten-track next time.

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