Château Musar’s award-winning and distinctive wines made it through 20 years of Lebanon’s civil war, and are now better than ever. ANDREW JEFFORD talks to owner Serge Hochar about the philosophy behind a great wine
What’s old? What’s new? The binary thinking which puts the wines of the southern hemisphere into a ‘New World’ and most of those of the north into an ‘Old World’ is simplistic. South Africa’s Constantia came into being before the Médoc had produced anything much except leg of lamb and pine cones; the wines of Chile and Peru predate Spain’s Rioja by no less than three centuries. There is, though, one celebrated wine on shop shelves today whose anticedents are nearly as old as Noah’s hangover: Château Musar.
The Old Testament book of Hosea, written in the eighth century BC, even provides a tasting note (‘the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon’); we know from Hesiod’s Works and Days that wine from the Bekaa Valley, known as Bibline, was so fragrantly good that it was exported to vine-swathed Greece. Twenty-seven centuries of continuous production is no flimsy foundation on which to build – or so thought a businessman called Gaston Hochar when he decided to create a modern Lebanese wine called Château Musar, from a sprawl of village vineyards, in the 1930s.
In 1959, Gaston’s son Serge took over. He was a young man for whom wine, with all its ancient resonances, was a response to existential doubt: “I couldn’t understand why I was alive. Wine was an answer to my question. It was indirectly an answer to the mystery of existence.’ When the first shots were fired in Lebanon’s civil war in 1972, Serge began to lose the Lebanese market; he realise he was going to have to ask the world to discover ‘Bibline’ anew. In 1979, at the Bristol Wine Fair, it did. That was the year when auctioneer and taster Michael Broadbent and journalist Roger Voss picked out Musar 1967 as the discovery of the Fair.
The war, alas, endured, and the story of Serge’s heroic endeavours during it has often been told. Musar and its fragrance endured, too. When Michael Broadbent retasted the 1967 in 2000, it still won four stars. No wine, when young, seems less likely to age; yet Musar, like Lebanon itself, has phoenix habits. Mille fois morte, mille fois revécue (‘a thousand times dead, a thousand times reborn’) reads the slogan on the old Beirut tourist posters.
When Hochar talks about life in Lebanon today, 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, 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 (plus Arak). In each case, the top wine is called Château Musar and the second wine (for younger drinking) Cuvée Réservée. There is then another wine called Hochar Père et Fils.
Musar has 50ha of its own, and controls a further 80ha; a supplementary 50ha are being planted at present for the Cuvée Réservée, and a further 50ha are planned, if all goes well.
Most of the vines for the red and rosé wines are grown in three villages on the western side of the Bekaa valley, on the foothills of the extended Mount Lebanon. Musar’s own 50ha 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. 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: the vineyards are at 900–1,050m above sea level. Musar’s white grapes, by contrast, are grown in two very different locations: one 10ha vineyard is across the Bekaa valley on the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, in a village called Ain Arab (at 1,400m, on stony chalk soils); the other 5ha vineyard is sited on the seaward side of Mount Lebanon, in Baqaâta, a village at 1,500m above sea level (on calcareous gravels).
For red Château Musar, Hochar uses three red grapes, in proportions that vary: prodigiously perfumed Cinsault, rich, spicy Carignan and dense yet succulent Cabernet Sauvignon. ‘The Cabernet is the skeleton, the backbone,’ says Hochar. ‘I hide them with the muscles, from the Carignan, and the skin, which is the Cinsault.’
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.
The grapes are hand picked and trucked 70km to the winery at Ghazir. Both fermentations take place in concrete with long macerations of up to five weeks and gentle extraction. After between six and nine months the wines are transferred to Nevers casks made by the coopers of Demptos for 10–14 months. When they’ve had enough wood, the reds go back into concrete for another year, during which the final blend 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. The Hochar Père et Fils red (10,000 cases) is in wood for six to nine months, and is bottled after about 18 months.
Musar’s whites and rosés are less well known. More’s the pity: both are unusual and superb. ‘My whites,’ says Hochar, ‘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, 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% barrel-fermented Oibaideh grown in Ain Arab, and 40% barrel-fermented Merwah grown, ungrafted, at Baquaâta. The Cuvée Réservée white is 70% Obaideh, 20% Merwah and 10% Ugni Blanc, vinified in stainless steel. (Hochar is still deciding what to use for the Hochar Père et Fils white – he tried pure Obaideh fermented in steel but it was ‘too serious’.)
Finally, the Château Musar Rosé is a blend of 90% barrel-fermented white Obaideh and 10% red Cinsault (Hochar’s softly oaked and unsparkling tribute to the typical ‘blended’ rosés of Champagne). 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 history. Hochar is an intuitive and evolutionary winemaker who never ceases to stop, think, modify, change; in any case, his own son Gaston is increasingly running the business, with long-term winemaker Tariq Sakr and cellarmaster Charbel Abighanem.
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. The success of many of the wines produced under war conditions convinced him that great, naturally made wines have a life of their own. ‘The power of the life of wine is astonishing. I have seen wines die, and then come back to life. I have made the decision myself that this wine is dead. Throw it away. Yet I was wrong.’
Hochar was a winemaking non-interventionist (‘let nature do it’) long before the term was ever coined, using very low levels of sulphur and wild yeasts, and never worrying much about the high levels of volatile acidity his wines often possess. ‘It is an aspect of fragrance,’ he told me in 1993. ‘Now we have reduced it – unfortunately.’
He waits far longer than most before bottling his wines, and then ages them for a further three or four years in bottle before releasing them. Even then he holds back at least 25% of each year’s stock for longer ageing, to the fury of his bank manager. ‘The value of our stock is 10 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 more than a million bottles. Why do this? To invest in time. ‘Give my wines more time,’ Hochar stresses, ‘and they will give you more joy.’
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. 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 that wine can teach.’
When I first tasted with Hochar 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 he could from their sensorial messages. Hochar has now developed a concept he calls ‘taste beyond taste’, by which he means that the physical responses 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 – that is the true measure of a wine’s worth. Great wines, in other words, are the most thought-provoking wines: that is their ‘taste beyond taste’.