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Wine from another time

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Whitey has a nostalgic ponder over some reds born in older times and much older vignobles – including one that brings a tear to the eye.

Gaston Hochar Château Musar Bekaa Valley Lebanon 2005
$60-$70; 14% alcohol; cork(!); 94++ points

Serge Hochar, his brother Ronald, and sons Gaston Jr, Ralph and Marc run this Lebanon winery, which was founded by Gaston Snr in 1930. The cellars are in the ancient Mzar castle between Beirut and Byblos; the vineyards are across the Bekaa Valley, south of the incredible Roman temples to Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus at Baalbek. For balance, Qana, the site of the water-into-wine wedding, is a little further to the south. The Hochars have lived in this hood since a French ancestor came in the Crusades, loved it, and stayed.

Bedouin gardeners run the vineyards and manage the harvest, sometimes under gunfire. Like machine guns, aircraft strafing and tank cannons. The vines – average age 40 years – are certified organic, and grow in alluvial gravels over limestone at about 1000 metres altitude. Only wild yeasts are involved, and the wines are unfined and unfiltered. This, the Chateau’s premium red, is a blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan. The percentages are never given. Smaller amounts of Grenache and Mourvèdre are often in the blend; I suspect they’re both in here. This is the current release. The wine is always seven years in the making: fermented in concrete; stored in French barrels for a year before blending; kept to settle in seasoned wood for a time – usually another year – then bottled and stored for three or four years before release.

In style, the wine is very much in the Max Schubert fashion, like a classic Penfolds blend from the mid-’70s. It needs standing up for a night, then decanting. Age has given this one the illusion of wine from a warmer place than Bekaa, which has very cold nights. It’s immediately soft and warm and inviting, and what Max called “soulful”.  Its fruits all have a toasty nature that the Hochars call “baked”, but the wines are neither jammy nor overtly alcoholic. I love the counterpoint of nutloaf/panforte and fine white pepper that usually dignifies these wines.

After that prickly but soothing bouquet, the flavours are nutty and sublimely elegant, with long velvet tannins and totally harmonious natural acids. They’re a little leathery sometimes, but there’s none of the hydrogen sulphide that often accompanies that aroma. Near the end there’s a wee dollop of comforting chocolate custard, bringing a further illusion of sweetness. There’s a little husky mace, too; maybe nutmeg. I don’t know any modern Australian wine like it: it really is more like something from 40 years ago, before the refineries and the petrochem mobs took over.

It’ll stay pretty much like this for at least 20 years, cork willing. I’ve troubled it over five days, and all that’s happened is it’s grown more mellow and alluring.

In other words, it’s a trip to 1980, and you’re drinking something that could have come from Max’s hand from 1975 or ’76. I don’t know any other way you can do that. It brings a bright tear to my eye.

Must all lovely things come from adversity?

Chateau Musar Jeune Cinsault Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon Bekaa Valley Lebanon 2011
$18-$25; 14% alcohol; cork(!); 87+ points

Made for earlier drinking, but after the same gentle, reassuring style, this one’s a bit more bright and cheeky, with that same prickly pepper and mace, but it still does best with a decanting. Take out the cork, and the bottle will remain alluring for at least three days, peaking on the second. I suspect it takes that long for the cork dust to submerge in the fruit.

The fragrance reminds me also of the curry tree, Murraya koenigii.  The palate is slender and spicy, and seems to have evolved to accompany Lebanese-style lamb. It, too, has that little spoonful of comforting chocolate near the end, and a tiny dribble of Leatherwood honey, but it’s not sugar sweetness. It’s comfort. A fine, elegant, easy wine to drink over two days before you tackle the 2005 premium.

You’ll have to ring Negociants Australia to get these wines, or to discover where you can buy them. It’s the agent.

By Jingo Nero Rosso McLaren Vale/Adelaide Hills Montepulciano Mourvèdre Grenache Shiraz Zinfandel 2011
$30-35: 14.2% alcohol; screw cap; 93++ points

Putting aside the modernistic inclusion of the Italian varieties much beloved by Johnny “Jingo” Gilbert, who through working there has a deep gut understanding of ancient bits of Italy, we have another wine here that feels like it comes from an earlier age. It has plenty of summer dust and white pepper to prickle the nose, but below that there’s a racy lash of brambly hedgerow berries and leaves, from hawthorn to juniper. The fruits rush past in a linear mess of beetroot through quince and redcurrant to prune. I say mess, but I probably should say blur, because they go past so fast I feel like the old strip camera at the photo finish at Flemington, trying to pin a name on the varieties when they’re all so stretched out and everything. I am the winner. I’m drinking it.

Because it has a screwcap, these aromas are tight, vibrant and fresh, and, as I say, modernistic. But it’s still retro. It seems that there’s a teaspoon of balsamic somewhere in the bottle. In the drinking division, it’s really racy and intense, with a touch of lightning on its blackberry bushes and maybe a wipe of gun blue to scare the foxes out and the ravens away.

As time goes by, we get a pretty wisp of musk sticks.

The flavours are a tad thicker than the bouquet indicates: they’re whippy and athletic but a touch more fluffy and fatty than you’d expect, without being gloopy. Just perfect, really, if you’re a modernist who’s dangerously retro bent.

And then, after a decanting and some bedazzled confusion, I get that little teaspoon of chocolate crême caramel rising near the long tapering finish. That seems retro, too.

I know I gonged the 2010 a little higher than this at 94+, but I remind you that my average points over a week of tasting is around 70, and I suspect this one will look more troublesome and disarmingly irresistible by the big Exmess. Six-pack under the bed. Go, turkey!

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