14 Feb 2011

Wines that are different (and wine of the week 12)

The "tall poppy syndrome", is a term applied to the way in which all things that are different, things that stand out in a crowd, are often rejected, denigrated and finally cut down by whatever is the current doxa.

This obviously extends to the field of wine, as to most other aspects of life. I suppose that one of the fundamentals of this rejection process has to do with fear that one might be wrong in one's assumptions. Or maybe just habit and laziness combined, in the sense that, to zoom in on the field of wine, one's tastes become used to certain flavour profiles and, liking them or finding them acceptable, tend to reject different profiles as being "not good" or "not so good". In this way of thinking and behaving, fashion, and a complex process of exchanges of opinions with others, mainly from one's peer group, play a considerable role. Individuals rarely like to stand out from the crowd, including by expressing themselves in favour of something or someone who has been rejected by the majority of others, and especially by others whose judgements are respected by that individual.

Of course, in the habit-forming process, past happy experiences are essential. This often strikes me in the context of wines that incorporate an oxydative maturing process during the period prior to bottling (and even after bottling in the case of older wines). The vast majority of wines, including now the finest wines, are drunk at increasingly young ages. Hence the aromas and flavours that derive from a drawn-out ageing process gradually disappear from the spectrum of most peoples' palates. Having been raised in England, where the consumption of Sherries as aperitive drinks has been current practice for some time, such oxidative flavours are part and parcel of my taste culture. Therefore, I suppose, I do not reject them as being part of what people now tend to call "defects" in a wine, unless of course they are over dominant or not complemented by other flavours that make the wine interesting to taste.

Oxygen is, ultimately, the key agent in the death process of foodstuffs, including wine, as indeed it is for us. And yet incorporating its effects into a wine through a carefully managed maturation process in the producer's cellar is perhaps the only way to ensure that a wine will have a long life, rather like injecting a tiny amount of a disease to encourage natural resistence in a human body in the innoculation process (I am sure that the doctors and oenologists out there will correct my imperfect understanding of this).

 How about some examples? My recent visit to Lebanon gave me food for thought on this question. Château Musar is a wine, both in its red and its white versions, which uses a gradual oxidative process as part of its maturing process. Like Vega Sicilia, which is Spain's most prestigious wine and which I had the good fortune to taste again recently, Musar is aged for many years (around 6 usually) before being sold. Its barrel ageing stage is not that long, usually around 2 years, the rest of the process taking place in bottle in the producer's cellar. Another critcism that is often levelled at Musar is the presence of some volatile acidity in the wines. This may be true, but so what? If the wine tastes good, does it really matter whether the laboratory rats consider that it does not fit in with contemporary canons of what is "correct" in wine making? And this acidity has in no way impaired the remarkable ageing capacity of Musar. The wines just do not fall apart, they evolve slowly, each vintage with its own profile, like the unique individuals they are.

So here are the notes I took on the Château Musar 2001, which I first tasted within a series of Lebanese wines that were tasted blind on January 13th during a recent trip to this country, and then again a day or two later at the Musar cellars.

The colour is noticeably pale and seems as if burnished. The nose is fine, showing age and considerable complexity, with hints (to me) of wax, spices, orange peel, tobacco and hay. The feel on the palate is very suave and refined. It has an almost burgundian feel on account of its delicacy. There is an incorporated freshness that makes it feel vibrant. Clearly apart from most wines, it is long and layered in its complexity. Its beauty is singular and, to me, moving.

Musar is not expensive, given its ageing capacity, and this vintage can be found for around 20 euros in Europe
On my visit to the cellars, I also tasted the following vintages of Musar red: 2002, 2003, 1998 and 1974. My two favourites were 1998 and 1974, which may reveal a tendancy for my palate to enjoy older wines, or indicate the capacity of Musar to age gracefully and gain in complexity with time. or a bit of both, plus the individual quality of these vintages.

On the right are the modernised cellars of Musar at Ghazir, north of Beirut. I expect that I shall return to the topic of Musar and include its very unusual and remarkable whites at a future date. And also to Vega Sicila, old-style Riojas (not all of which are necessarily good!) and the whole subject of wines that stand apart from the masses.