Understanding Musar

  • Thursday 4 December 2003

In the beginning …

hochar

In the beginning …

… but which beginning? Where do we start with Musar? Perhaps with the book of Hosea, written in the eighth century BCE, which tells those Israelites prepared to return to righteousness that they shall “grow as the vine: the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon” (14.7). Lebanese wine was known as Bibline, after the city of Byblos (modern-day Jbaïl); it was fragrant enough to merit export to Greece. That practical Boeotian farmer Hesiod (we learn from ll. 588-94 of Works and Days, probably written about the same time as Hosea) liked nothing more in midsummer than a picnic.

… at this time,

I love a shady rock, and Bibline wine,

A cake of cheese, and goat’s milk, and some meat

Of heifers pastured in the woods, uncalved,

Or first-born kids. The may I sit in shade

And drink the shining wine, and eat my fill

And turn my face to meet the fresh West Wind …

Perhaps, though, we should fast-forward almost 30 centuries, to a moment when every village in Lebanon had a few rows of vines for table grapes and arak – but no more. No more, that is, until a man called Gaston Hochar decided, in 1930 or so, that his country should re-establish the fine wine industry of ancient days, and that he was the man to do it. Or perhaps the beginning is really 1959, when the 1956 wine made by Gaston was bottled by his son Serge Hochar (pictured), a thoughtful civil engineering student who, five years earlier, had wanted to die. (“I was never depressed. But I couldn’t understand why I was alive. Wine was a very satisfactory answer to my question. It was indirectly an answer to the mystery of existence.”) It is, after all, the 44 vintages made since then by Serge Hochar which has defined Lebanese wine in the modern era.

In other ways, though, the beginning is 1972, when the first shots were fired in a civil war that was to last, intermittently, for 20 years and destroy much of Beirut. Up until that time, Lebanon had consumed every drop of Musar, but with the coming of war Serge Hochar lost 90 per cent of that home market. He had to sell abroad to survive. And in that particular respect the beginning would be the Bristol Wine Fair of 1979 where, despite the clamour of scent and flavour from the best of Europe, both auctioneer and taster Michael Broadbent and journalist Roger Voss picked out Musar 1967 as the discovery of the Fair.

There are, in brief, no end of beginnings, and nothing could be more appropriate for the Lebanon. When I first went there in 1993, I remember a poster of Beirut pinned to the wall of the London visa office. Mille fois morte, it read, mille fois revécue. `A thousand times dead, a thousand times reborn’. I jotted it the words down in my passport. In the last 10 years of frantic rebuilding, the city has achieved another rebirth: it is now as noisy, bright and brash as at any time in the past. You could see the moonlight shine on the ruined walls of the city in 1993, so sparse were its electric lights. In the neon glare of 2003, no chance.

If you want to understand Musar, none of this is irrelevant. The fact that Lebanese wine was famously good 30 centuries ago, and that every time an Ancient jotted down a tasting note for it they mentioned `fragrance’ or `scent’, helps to explain why Musar commands such enthusiasm around the world today. Like all great wines, it is remarkably persistent in time, despite every appearance to contrary; that 1967 which so impressed Michael Broadbent still merited four stars from him when tasted in 2000. When Serge talks about life in the Lebanon, he always uses the word “chaos”. Yet the place works and thrives. It is like nowhere else and nothing else. Ditto for Musar, a wine made from a chaotic and improbable blend of grapes by sometimes perverse and dangerous methods – but which has given those who know it some of their most sublime experiences of drinking fully mature, fully ripe red wine from a unique and ancient terroir.

Understanding requires facts, so here are some. Musar produces nine wines: three reds, three whites and three rosés. (Arak, too.) In each case, the top wine is called Château Musar and the second wine (for younger drinking) Cuvée Réservée. There is then another wine, of different style, called Hochar Père et Fils. Musar has 50 ha of its own, and controls a further 80 ha; a supplementary 50 ha are being planted at present for the Cuvée Réservée, with a plan for a further 50 ha in three years if all goes well.

The red and most of the rosé wine is grown in three villages on the western side of the the Bekaa valley, on the foothills of the extended Mount Lebanon. Musar’s own 50 ha of red grapes are in the village of Kefraya (on a variety of soils: sometimes stony, sometimes with more clay and sand, over a limestone base), while the vineyards it controls (but doesn’t own) are in the neighbouring villages of Aâna (deeper soils over limestone) and Ammiq (gravels over limestone). The Bekaa is high: those vineyards are sited between 900m and 1050m above sea level. According to Serge, the height gives them a climate equivalent of ten parallels further north. They lie at 33°; so 43° would make them the equivalent of Bordeaux -- “except we have less rain and more sunshine”. Musar’s white grapes, by contrast, are grown in two very different locations: one 10-ha vineyard in sited across the Bekaa valley on the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, in a village called Ain Arab (at 1400m, on stony chalk soils), and the other 5-ha vineyard is sited on the seaward side of Mount Lebanon, in a village sited at 1500m above sea level called Baqaâta (on calcareous gravels).

For Château Musar’s red, Serge uses varying proportions of three red grapes: prodigiously perfumed Cinsault, rich and spicy Carignan (far richer than this variety ever is in the Languedoc) and dense yet succulent Cabernet Sauvignon. In the `Musar Man’, as Serge puts it, “the Cabernet Sauvignon is the skeleton, the backbone, which I hide with the muscles, which come from the Carignan, and the skin, which is the Cinsault”. Other grapes come and go on an experimental basis, but none has ever figured large in the blend: Serge had tried Syrah and Mourvèdre but is now discarding them; research continues on Grenache and Merlot. The red Cuvée Réservée is now a genuine `second wine’, based on parcels from young vines and less successful lots; the red Hochar Père et Fils, by contrast, is predominantly based on a single-vineyard in Aâna, mostly Cinsault but with a little Carignan and Cabernet, where the vines are all over 50 years old and yields are less than 20 hl/ha. (In general all the Musar wines are made from very low-yielding vines, often between 10 and 15 hl/ha, though these figures are slightly misleading since planting densities are very low, too: historically about 1,600 plants per ha, and in the new plantings about 3,200 plants per ha.)

The grapes are hand-picked and trucked 70 km to the winery at Ghazir, which takes around 90 minutes from Kefraya (though during the Civil War it could take days or even weeks: the 1990 had to make a 250-km detour, while the 1984 had to travel by sea and began fermenting en route, so none was ever released). Both fermentations take place in concrete (Serge tried and abandoned stainless steel) with long macerations of up to five weeks and gentle extraction using some pigeage but principally remontage; after between 6 and 9 months the wines are transferred to Nevers casks made by the coopers of Demptos (between a quarter and one-third new) for between 10 and 14 months “or until the oak begins to show. Whenever I smell oak on wine I begin to get alarmed. Sometimes it’s the wrong alarm, but mostly it’s the right alarm”. When they’ve had enough wood, the reds go back into concrete for another year, during which the final blend (a delicate and ruminative operation at Musar) is assembled. They are then bottled, generally without filtration; the average production is around 25,000 cases.

The Cuvée Réservée red (at present 7,000 cases but will rise to 15,000 cases with the new plantings) sees no wood, and is bottled after six to eight months; while the Hochar Père et Fils red (10,000 cases) is in wood for six to nine months, and is bottled after about 18 months.

The whites and rosé wines are less well-known, more’s the pity: both are unusual and superb. “My whites,” says Serge, “are my first reds; they are to be served at room temperature; they will go with more foods than any of my reds; they are more serious than my reds; and their dimensions are way bigger than any of my reds. But they are much more difficult than my reds.” The Château Musar white is a blend of 60 per cent barrel-fermented Oibaideh (Serge once thought this a progenitor of Chardonnay, but now considers it a progenitor of Chasselas) grown in Ain Arab, and 40 per cent barrel-fermented Merwah (considered by Serge a progenitor of Sémillon) grown, ungrafted, at Baquaâta. The Cuvée Réservée white is at present 70 per cent Obaideh, 20 per cent Merwah and 10 per cent Ugni Blanc, vinified in stainless steel, and Serge is still deciding what to use for the Hochar Père et Fils white (he tried pure Obaideh fermeted in stainless steel but it was “too serious”). Finally the Château Musar Rosé is a blend of 90 per cent barrel-fermented white Obaideh and 10 per cent red Cinsault (Serge’s softly oaked and unsparkling tribute to the typical `blended’ rosés of Champagne, which he likes). The Cuvée Réservée Rosé and the Hochar Père et Fils Rosé are both based on saignées (the `bleeding’ of pink juice from a red-wine vat to concentrate the finished red wine) of Cinsault from Kefraya.

That’s enough facts. In a year or two, moreover, they may be wrong. Serge is a very intuitive and evolutionary winemaker who never ceases to stop, think, modify, change; in any case, his own son Gaston in increasingly running the business with long-term winemaker Tariq Sakr and cellarmaster Charbel Abighanem, while Serge (now 64), says he wants to “do nothing” except read, write, think and taste.

Understanding also requires more than mere facts. Serge Hochar is a deeply philosophical winemaker who has never hestitated to gamble and take risks to follow his winemaking hunches. “Good wine,” he told me in 1993, “should be dangerously enjoyable. I want to make a wine that troubles me.” The civil war, moreover, forced him to double those risks and live, in winemaking as well as human terms, even more dangerously, and the success of many of the wines produced under war conditions convinced him that great, naturally made wines have a kind of life of their own, “not human life but life all the same”, and that this life is far more tenacious and autonomous than most winemakers (let alone oenologists) would believe. “The power of the life of wine is astonishing. I have seen wines die, and then come back to life later on. I have made the decision myself. `This wine is dead. Throw it away.’ Yet I was wrong.”

He was a winemaking non-interventionist (“let nature do it”) long before the term was ever thought of, using very low levels of sulphur and wild yeasts right from the beginning, and never worrying much about the high levels of volatile acidity his wines ofter possess. “It is an aspect of fragrance,” he told me in 1993. “Now we have reduced it – unfortunately.” He waits far longer than most would do before bottling his wines, which often leaves them (by modern standards) challengingly light in colour; and then he ages them for a further three or four years in bottle before putting them on sale. Even then he holds back at least 25 per cent of the stock of each year for much longer ageing, to the fury of his bank manager. “The value of our stock is ten times our annual sales. But making money is not the prime objective. The prime objective is social: country, roots, genes, history.” The cellars at Ghazir have recently been extended to accommodate Musar’s vast stocks of well over one million bottles. Why do this? To invest in time. “Give my wines more time,” Serge stresses, “and they will give you more joy.” It takes time to talk to Serge, time to taste with him, and time to work for him. “The value of time is so important,” Serge has told me repeatedly. “Somebody who works with me has to continue to work with me. Whenever you lose someone, you lose a lot. If I spend two hours with you, it is already capital. If I am going to lose this, it is very stupid.”

I have never actually met anyone for whom the act of tasting wine is more important than for Serge Hochar. “What you taste,” he says, “is truth.” I have already described how wine gave Serge, early in his life, a reason for living when he could see no other; now he says “my religion is wine. It is a gift which is a miracle of life. I am a Maronite Christian, but it is not there that the core of my humanity lies. It lies in accepting the other, in tolerance,which is the only lesson for humanity and which is one of the chief lessons which wine can teach.” When I first tasted with Serge in 1993, it struck me that he was not tasting in any conventional sense, but rather psychoanalysing his wines -- listening to them, waiting on them, squeezing every drop of meaning which he could from their sensorial messages, trying to intuit what they might do in the future, and what they wanted him to do for them. Serge has now developed a concept which he calls `taste beyond taste’, by which he means that the physical responses which a wine provokes are but a small part of its power and appeal, and that it is what happens in the brain provoked by those physical responses which is the true measure of a wine’s worth. Great wines, in other words, are quite literally the most thought-provoking wines: that is their `taste beyond taste’.

Even in extremis, the tasting of wine has kept Serge anchored to life. His own final act, during a period of shelling in Beirut which he thought he was unlikely to survive and which sent shrapnel through the heart of the neighbour in the room below him, killing her outright, was to pour a full bottle of Musar 1972 into a 75-cl Baccarat glass and taste it over a 12-hour period until the explosions finally stopped. “Under these circumstances, you are hardly thinking any more. The intensity of the moment is compensated by the intensity of the taste of the wine. It was such a companion to me that day. I said to myself, `If I have to pass away, let me pass away with something very good’.” On which note, let’s examine the ways in which Musar can be very good.

The taste of Musar

Over the years, I have tasted seventeen vintages of red Château Musar back to 1961, and between eight and ten vintages of the white Château Musar back to 1954. These are notes on the best of the older Musars, plus recent and impending releases (the `97 red and `98 white is on sale at present in the UK).

What, though, should you expect if you have never tasted Musar before? Château Musar white is powerful, firmly structured and startlingly concentrated white wine (it is, remember, in part made from very old, ungrafted vines of super-low yield). It can often seem fruitless at first, with what Serge once described to me as a `salty-acid’ style, but persist and you will find astonishing avenues and alleyways of flavour within it. The red may initially seem to you pale and slight, and you will wonder that it could have the ageing potential reputed to it. You will notice its sweet and allusive fragrance (a consquence above all of the Cinsault component) and soft, silky texture. You will quickly realise that it is highly drinkable. And it will be as the level in the bottle descends that you will realise exactly what this particular vintage has to offer, which in the case of the greatest Musars will be far more than you might imagine. By the end of the bottle you will realise that this is fine wine of unique and singular profile from one of the world’s great terroirs. The Cuvée Reservée red is sweet-scented, soft and deliciously uncomplicated, while the Hochar Père et Fils red is fuller and deeper, as sweet-fruited, yet with a little more spice.

The vintages

1954 white Bright gold in colour, and prodigiously aromatic, running through a chain of allusions which seemed to settle, butterfly-like, somewhere new every 10 seconds or so. The list of notes I jotted down seems absurd: prawns, nuts, green pepper, bread, doughnuts, finally settling on butttered brazils and roasted cashews. Extraordinary – yet true. As with many old wines, the palate was not quite as spectacular, but it remained full, deep and living: quince, a hint of pickled lemon, finally a butterscotch fade to oblivion. A grand old white, in sum. (Tasted 3.4.93) ****

1961 red A typical old Musar: fragrant as Zanzibar, soft as feathers, succulent and melting as caramel. The fragrance (bolstered by record levels of VA, just like Cheval Blanc `47) suggests, after 30 years in bottle, wild mushrooms and the forest floor; the flavour is sweet, spreading and singing, the red fruits of the first sip metamorphosing towards date and fig. A purr of tannins still mark the wine’s borders. (Tasted 3.4.93) ****

1972 red This was the wine Serge chose for his last hours. Multi-dimensioned, meaty-minty scents, then a flavour of perfect ripeness and expressiveness, soft yet lively. The mint returns, stealthily, under a hum of tobacco. It’s still full of lingering, silky concentration; it fades sweetly. Utterly charming, yet finally profound. (Tasted 3.4.93) *****

1977 red Scents of warm meat stock and rubbed spices. Despite its pale appearance, glycerous and mouthfilling, with exquisite balance between the lively redcurrant fruit backbone and the raisin-sweet edges. Magnificently drinkable. (Tasted 2.9.03) ****

1981 red A scent of fragrant sweet roses, and sweet, exotic fruits with a raisiny edge to taste. Despite this sweetness, the flesh and the sensual Cinsualt `skin’ of the wine was still much in evidence. As we drank the wine (at dinner on my first night in the Lebanon in 1993), it became cleaner and more refreshing: another Musar hallmark. (Tasted 31.3.93) ****

1988 red A powerful Musar, though (as always) graceful. Scents of rich, dusty plums initially; then a full, ripe, lazy lassoo of liquorice and chocolate wobbles through the air to draw you in to this loose-knit yet compelling wine. The flavours, curranty-sweet at the end, refuse to get up and leave. (Tasted 3.4.93) *****

1995 red A wonderful Musar nose of typical fragrance: the sweet Havana tobacco notes of the earth at rest after a long, hot summer. In the mouth, though, you’ll find a more vigorous, swarmingly energetic flavour than usual: Musar in electric mood. (Tasted 18.8.03) ***

1995 white Full gold in colour, with scents of honey and beeswax. Fine, resonant concentration, with succulent almond and greengage fruits. (Tasted 18.8.03) ****

1996 red A pale colour even by Musar standards, and a less vivacious scent than usual. On the palate, though, this is more tenacious than you might expect, with liquorice edged, Pinot-style fruits. (Tasted 2.2.03) **

1997 red Redcurrant scents, and a clean, fresh, intense flavour, more drily curranty than is usual for Musar. “It changed suddenly as it threw its sediment, as if it was on a diet,” says Serge. (Tasted 18.8.03) ***

1998 red Another relatively pale, light vintage, this has relatively mature, classic, sweetly cedary aromas already, with smooth, graceful flavours of wheat and raisin. Its resembles the 1996 but with extra push and shove. (Tasted 18.8.03) ***

1998 white Scents of wild flowers, and the typically masterful, firmly structured, lemon-riven flavours of Musar white. (Tasted 18.8.03) ***

1999 red If the 1997 was Bordeaux-style, this definitely makes more of a nod to the Rhône. An enticing and dangerous scent of violets, game and incense, with a concentrated, assertive, full-throttle flavour of dense sweet fruits. (Tasted 18.8.03) ****

1999 white Piney scents; huge concentration of rich yet vivid, dense, wild-flower and honey flavours, with powerful and lingering finish. A great white with a long future ahead of it. (Tasted 18.8.03) *****

2000 red A classic Musar, with creamy, composed scents marked at this stage by the distinctive redcurrant notes of the Cinsault from Ammiq, followed by round, smooth, sweetly savoury flavours. (Tasted 18.8.03) ****

2000 white A fresher and fruitier scent than usual; thick, mineral and chewy on the palate, like a distant levantine echo of Coulée de Serrant. Compelling and fascinating. (Tasted 18.8.03) ****

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