Ask any wine lover from New York to New Zealand about Lebanese wine and they will likely mention Chateau Musar. But ask them to name another wine from Lebanon and they will probably draw a complete blank. So how did this tiny producer manage to achieve such remarkable international recognition?
It all began in 1979 when Michael Broadbent pronounced the 1967 Musar the ‘Find of Bristol Wine Fair.’ Thereafter, in the 80s and 90s Musar appeared in the headlines for winemaking above and beyond the call of duty. Not least because Serge Hochar somehow managed to produce a series of vintages amidst the bombs and bullets of the Lebanese Civil War.
Making wine in normal circumstances is challenging; having to grow and vinify grapes in a war zone is almost beyond belief. It is no wonder Serge was deservedly named Decanter’s first ever Man of the Year in 1985.
Since the end of that terrible conflict and, of course, the more recent Israeli invasion in 2006, Lebanon has returned to more secure and stable times. Consequently, a new chapter of peace and prosperity has begun, which Serge is only too happy to see.
“People think of Musar because of the bad times in the Lebanon,” he says. “But now we have a new story to tell here. It may not get us so many column inches in the papers and wine magazines, but I prefer to talk about wine rather than war,” he told us as we drove north from the capital up to the winery – located in the historic Maronite Christian enclave of Ghazir overlooking the Bay of Jounieh.
Serge is equally happy to talk about the latest organizational developments at Musar, including the fact that a new generation is beginning to take over the reins of the family business. This year, Serge’s son Gaston has been joined by his brother Marc who is now devoting less of his time to his Dubai-based hedge fund and much more to Musar.
Nonetheless, Serge is still ‘Mr. Musar’ and he has lost none of his passion for life or wine. Moreover, 2010 is a landmark year. “Of course, we are very excited about the future with my two sons on board,” says Serge. “But this is also our 80th anniversary year. It is good to look back and taste what we have achieved,” he says with a warm and characteristic grin. “Come on,” he beckons. “The wines are waiting.”
The first of our two marathon tastings began with a barrel sample of Serge’s latest 2010 and ended with his second ever Musar vintage, the 1960. In between, we tasted Musar’s greatest vintages from the 00s, 90s, 80s, 70s and 60s. It was an amazing and instructive experience.
Having never tasted so many Musar vintages at once, a number of things quickly became apparent. First was each wine’s remarkable longevity and marked ability to improve in the glass. Second were the hallmark aromas and flavours which continued to reappear vintage after vintage. Often these emerge as earthy, animalistic notes amidst the plethora of fruit.
All of this underpins the unique nature and originality of Musar. In part, this is due to the unusual blend that makes up the wine. Since 1977, Serge has settled on roughly equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan – all grown in the Bekaa Valley, some 80kms away from the winery in Ghazir.
The Musar winemaking process uses very little sulphur and there is never any fining or filtration prior to bottling. Serge assembles the final blend after two years and bottles the following year. After an additional seven years of ageing the wine is finally released for sale. “These are wines which are built for ageing. If you give them more time, they will give you more joy,” says Serge.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hochar believes in terroir and letting the fruit and vintage express themselves. His attitudes to wine are trenchant and unflinching. “I prefer authenticity, elegance and balance. I like a wine I can see through,” he proclaims over the 1983.
Of course, it is a miracle the 1983 was even made. At the time, the Israelis were launching a ground offensive from the Chouf Mountains which surround Beirut. At the same time there were artillery bombardments from Druze and Christian militias.
Harvesting the grapes was dangerous enough, but even more perilous was getting the crop from the Bekaa Valley to Ghazir as shells peppered the route. Serge himself survived two rocket attacks on the coastal road.
Tasting these remarkable wines and listening to the stories behind them only enhances the fact that Chateau Musar is much more than just a wine. It is a piece of history, perfectly captured in a 75cl time-capsule.