As fall approaches, I tend to move away from easy-drinking whites and sparkling wines, and search for unique wines that brighten any evening. I look for conversation pieces, whose winemaking, region, or style evokes a sense of adventure or discovery. Wines that make you seem like an expert – or at the very least, the coolest attendee – at any dinner party.
These are three of my favourite picks to stock up on as we enter fall and look for something new and different to try.
Chateau Musar, Musar White, Lebanon
Lebanon doesn’t spring to mind when one thinks of winemaking, but the tradition there spans more than 6,000 years.
Planted in the Bekaa Valley at 3,000 ft altitude, Chateau Musar‘s vines are all bush trained and manually managed. Despite years of war around the valley, only the 1976 vintage was considered too dangerous to harvest grapes. If you’re looking for a unique story, great quality, and age-worthy wines, look no further than this underrated Middle-eastern hotspot.
Inspired to make top quality wines, Gaston Hochar, founder of Chateau Musar, studied in Bordeaux during the 1920s. He trained under the watchful eye of French wine legend Emile Peynaud, then to return home to Lebanon to replicate what he’d learned back in France. Quickly, he realized that his wines needed to find their own uniqueness.
The wines are truly distinct. Released years after deemed ready to enjoy, Chateau Musar’s wines have a distinct funkiness, a gamey character, and notes of ripe fruit that transform into something splendid. This unique style is what put them on the map. Today, this would be regarded as “natural” winemaking.
When I tasted the wines with Marc Hochar he said something that struck me: “Many winemakers try to make wine that fits into a square or what would be considered “typical.” For us, we paint outside the lines and redefine expectations.”
While the sunny and dry climate of the Bekaa Valley might suggest that their red wines should be the frontrunners, I believe their whites are the underrated stars. Produced from low-yielding vines more than 100 years old, they consist of a blend of Merwah (Chardonnay) and Obadeih (Semillon).
The Musar family makes their whites as they would their reds: with natural yeast, fermented in French oak, and with minimal handling. It’s hard to judge what the wines will taste like on the day they are opened, but those doing the tasting should expect to spend some time unravelling their complexity. Typically, one will find layers of lily, honey, roasted almond, Indian spices and citrus, complimented by a weightier palate.
France, Loire: Silex from Domaine Didier Dagueneau
For those excited by biodynamic wines, Loire is the place to look. Top producers such as Nicolas Joly and the late Didier Dagueneau didn’t just set a trend of establishing biodynamic winemaking here; They built a legacy of making wines that reach beyond terroir and into the cosmos. I’ll do a deep dive into Biodynamics in a future piece; for now, I can’t wait to share my next pick: Silex.
The Dagueneau are best known for their Sauvignon Blanc from Loire’s top wine region: Pouilly-Fume. Pouilly-Fume is known for its flinty and limestone-rich white soils that provide a distinctive gun flint or firecracker aroma. The best soils of the region have a mixture of silica, limestone, and flint clay called silex: the same name as the wine itself.
Didier did not present like most French winemakers. With his iconic long hair and bandana, he looks like he just hopped off his Harley. Not surprising, from 1978-1982, he raced racing motorcycle side cars around the world.
And like the winemaker, himself, these wines are larger than life. The cuvées are a far cry from a New Zealand Marlborough. The New World offerings tend to conserve the purity of the fruit and the sharp grassy notes. Didier’s Loire produced wines offer more minerality, honeyed fruit, and complexity. The wines undergo fermentation in barrels, which is rare in NZ. The result is a broad, rich palate.
Those that can find old vintages of Silex (or any of Didier’s collection are in luck). Didier passed away in a tragic accident back in 2008.
The Dagueneau’s son, Louis Benjamin, was raised at the vinery and now is holding the reins. He is doing an excellent job of building his own winemaking legacy. This is certainly the wine to have if you’re trying to impress any wine geeks in your circle.
Seppelt, Original Sparkling Shiraz, Australia
Sparkling Shiraz boasts two style. One is overly sweet and simple; another is complex, textured, powerful, and balanced with oak. Seppelt falls into the latter category.
In 1890, Seppelt was Australia’s first producer of traditional sparkling wines a.k.a. ‘Champagne production.’ A few years later, the winery started to experiment with Sparkling Shiraz, naming their product “Sparkling Burgundy.”
Sourcing from the cooler regions of Grampian and Heathcote, located north of Melbourne, provides a beautiful backbone of fresh berry and hints of crushed black pepper. To increase complexity, a portion of the wine is aged in French oak, which helps to balance the dark chocolate finish.
Sparkling Shiraz is first made by producing a dry Shiraz style wine and ageing it in tank or oak. After the first fermentation, it completes a secondary fermentation in bottle in order to trap the CO2 and provide a frothy mouthfeel. The result is a perfect to pair with barbecued meats, Thanksgiving turkey, or to simply enjoy on a chilly fall night.
Emilie has cultivated her palate through gaining her Diploma and Certified Educator from WSET, Certified Sommelier from CMS, HEG Certificate from Cordon Bleu, and is currently a Master of Wine Candidate. As Head of Education Asia & MEIA, she develops programs for front line staff across China, where her team trains thousands of drink enthusiasts across Asia. She currently serves as China Eastern Airlines Official Wine Consultant for First and Business Class.