By Nick Breeze:
In the early Autumn of 2008, I found myself many kilomters beneath ground in the cellars of Milestii Mici in Moldova. Moldova, has been dubbed the "Tsar's Burgundy" as it has a long history of wine producing and, during the reign of the Tsar's, was producing wine of good quality comparable to those found further west in France.
I brought back several bottles from the trip but had thought they were all consumed long ago. It was with a mixture of nostalgia, curiosity and derring do, that I decided to open this over the weekend. It has been kicking around in various places for quite sometime, only to be unearthed during a recent house move. The saving grace, I thought, was that the cork had been sealed with wax over the top adding a greater layer of protection against oxidation from a maligned cork.
So, after an arduous traipse around both Tate Gallery's and a large glass of strong cider, the only thing left to do was sample the Negru de Purcari. The packaging is so impressive that it has to be photographed and admired. The ancient script, string, aged bottle etc, all add to the feeling that something great was about to be drunk… possibly extricated (or excavated?) from the dying Tsar's grasp, in order to be consumed in the present.
The cork shattered instantly giving me the fear. Out came the tea strainer and the jug for immediate decanting. The colour was dark but the very brick red around the edges, thinning to almost clear. I immediately poured a couple of samples for my fellow tasters to try.
The colour is deep ruby but far from opaque in the glass. The brick red meniscus indicates the age clearly and sets the scene for excitement. On the nose, straight from the jug with little breathing time, the main aroma is oak and quite a strong strawberry. Both these characters come out in the taste too. Amazingly the wine is not at all maligned. That is a great relief. I'd hate to see so much careful Harry Potter-esque packaging go to waste!!
Everyone agrees this is a tasty wine. The age makes it very delicate and reminiscent of a gentle aged Burgundy… the nickname of old is pretty spot on. We continued to taste and over the course of the next 45 minutes the wine is completely transformed. I was now becoming morose at the thought of only having one bottle. What stupidity! The aromas, matched by flavours, had developed into an intense prune with a lovely soft tannic structure. My mouth was watering with every sip.
In the words of no one but me: Ecce Vinum!
Well done Milestti Mici for producing such a tasty bottle of wine that lives up to the experience of visiting the underground labyrinthe of the 200km deep tunnels. This is delicious. I wish I had some more of the dessert wines to add to the list but I don't. Perhaps time for a return visit?
When asked what my favourite wine is, my standard answer is "it depends" but when I’m pushed to say something, I answer "Chateau Musar". I like it because in an age of homogeneity and uniformity; Musar stands out. There’s often a marked variation from one bottle to the next – even within the same vintage – on the nose the wine can be quite volatile; although that blows off after a while, in short it’s not like any other wine. I don’t just like it because it’s different, though. I like it because it’s good.
It’s very good. I was first introduced to the wine by a friend, Gabriel Yareed. He’s a composer and amongst other things, he wrote the music for the film ‘Betty Blue’ and won an Oscar for his work on Anthony Mingella’s ‘The English Patient.’ He’s a friend of the Hochar family who make the wine in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. We used to drink bottles of the stuff on sunlit winter afternoons in Notting Hill, discussing life’s finer points in the midst of very glamorous people chattering and drinking cocktails.
Whilst many people are surprised to hear about Lebanese wine-making, it’s been going on there for thousands of years: since the time of the Phoenicians – the founding fathers of the wine trade. The climate in most of the country isn’t ideal for wine; but the Bekaa valley is at altitude – this ensures that whilst it’s hot, it’s never too hot; the landscape is very much like that of northern California; arid scrub land flecked with green.
Chateau Musar itself is something of a cross-between; although I’m never sure what it’s a cross between. Sometimes I’m reminded of Claret; sometimes of the Rhone; sometimes of a South African wine; and other things at other times. The grapes used are: cabernet sauvignon, carignan and cinsault the wine is racked in wooden barrels and isn’t blended until the end of the second year, according to taste and so the proportions are different every vintage. Finally, in an age when wine makers in Bordeaux are so keen to sell their wine, that they sell before it’s even been bottled; in Musar, they refuse to sell their wine until it’s ready to approach and has passed it’s sixth birthday. I recently tasted vintages of Chateau Musar stretching back over more than 40 years: here are my notes
CHATEAU MUSAR REDS
1999 Current vintage: Intense and ruby red wine. The blackcurrant flavours matched with excellent tannin and acidity balance with hints of leather and cherries coupled with tremendous richness.
1993: Rich and bright colour. Wonderful hint of cedar, accompanies brambles and berries on the nose. The fruit carries through on to the palate and is supported by a slight taste of lead pencil shavings; structure very similar to a decent claret, developing a slight garnet edge.
1989: The colour is starting to clear, but the wine is not yet transparent – still good and dense. Hint of cherry cough sweets on the nose. Red fruits and a hint of coffee, full body and mid-weighted texture; good acidity and ‘grip’.
1988: Good and bright. Candied sweets and Brandy Balls on the nose – cinnamon. Slightly sharp acidity, balanced by sweetness – think poached rhubarb and Demerara sugar. Will last for another ten years.
1979: Brick red in colour. Disappointing; partially oxidised, and as a result fairly tart – like orange juice.
1978: slight cork-taint, but in a subtle and pernicious way, it’s strangled the fruit without being obvious on the nose. Faulty bottle.
1972: Beautiful tawny colour; picked a year before the Yom Kipour War and the Oil crisis. On the nose, this smells exactly like a pink lilly; in the mouth, lovely round berry fruit married well with wood.
1970: The colour is beginning to drop out of the wine and the acidity is very fresh, almost like an old white wine. Blackcurrant fruit with a delicious hint of caramel to round off the wine.
1967: Very fine and delicate, mature appearance, slightly oxidised with a lemony acidity. Delicious in the same way that very old champagne is. Not to everyone’s taste. This is called the Gout Anglais – in reference to the fact that we in this country have had a reputation for liking wines which are ‘dead.’
1966: Pale orange/brown colour, again good acidity and grip. The fruit has mellowed and notes of oak flavours preponderate – as in old malts and cognac.
1959: the best wine by a mile. Pale tawny colour. Nutmeg, cinnamon and sandal wood aromas on the nose. Round in the glass with a tremendous body, especially for a wine of this age. Thick and sweet like liquorice, notes of toffee and oak. There’s something reminiscent of Pedro Ximenez, even though the wine isn’t sweet; it’s powerful, old, full-bodied and ethereal.
CHATEAU MUSAR WHITES
I also tasted the whites. Made from obeideh and merwah two grape varieties indigenous to Mount Lebanon; it’s not just the grapes that stand out, unlike most whites, these should be drunk at cellar temperature – about 15 degrees. If you like Hunter Valley Semillon or Madeira I think you might like these
1999 current vintage. Pale old-gold colour. Semolina pudding on the nose, hint of bees wax. Fleshy with flavours of soft fruit – pears and peaches.
1991: Hint of ginger and even cinnamon; Very rich, the spiciness along with the quince-like acidity brings about a slightly antiseptic taste (TCP.) It’s familiar, though and more attractive than that description sounds.
1990: Platinum or pale straw in colour with lemon rind, white peach aromas. This interplay of bitterness and sweetness reminds me of a very good Hunter Valley Semillon. That ‘waxiness’ is supported by a plush sweetness in the fruit. Ready to drink, but will keep.
1975: Full yellow/gold with notes of malt whisky and oak on the nose. Soft like molten candy; exquisite and poised in the mouth. A touch maderised; I love it. Will probably last for ages, but why wait?
1969: Deep burnished gold colour. Delicious aroma of poached pear; rich, ripe fruit and honeycomb on the palate. The wine lingers for a moment and then is gone – ethereal and delicious. Drink now.