The wine world has united to pay tribute to Serge Hochar, the driving force behind Lebanon's Chateau Musar and the first Decanter Man of the Year, who died suddenly last week while on holiday with his family, aged 75.
Chateau Musar’s Serge Hochar died last week on holiday in Acapulco
Over the last few days, tributes from around the world have poured in to honour the man credited with single-handedly putting Lebanese wines on the map, and inspiring a new generation of winemakers in the country.
Born on 20th November 1939, Serge Gaston Hochar had originally studied to become a civil engineer, but quickly found in wine both a professional calling, and a reason for existing, describing wine as ‘an answer to the mystery of existence’.
In 1959, his first formal vintage involvement was bottling the 1956 vintage Chateau Musar which had been made by his father, Gaston Hochar. Gaston had established Musar in the 1930s, determined that his country, Lebanon, should re-establish the fine wine industry of ancient days.
After a period studying oenology in Bordeaux with Emile Peynaud, Serge Hochar returned to Lebanon to take over from his father as winemaker, in doing so, implemented his own unique style of wine which, highly distinctive in character, would come to be revered by critics and fine wine lovers in the years to follow.
In the early days of the estate, Musar’s production was consumed entirely in the Lebanon, and so when civil war broke out in 1972, Chateau Musar was in danger of losing its entire market. Serge Hochar decided that he needed to find new markets for his wines, and thus began an extensive pattern of travel, determined to introduce Chateau Musar to new wine drinkers around the world; a journey that would continue throughout his entire career.
‘There was scarcely a wine event in the world that he didn’t attend,’ Michael Broadbent remembers. ‘The whole wine world knew him; he travelled a huge amount.’
In 1979, at the Bristol Wine Fair in the UK, Michael Broadbent picked out Hochar’s Chateau Musar 1967 as the discovery of the fair and awarded it the show’s top prize, later writing about it in Decanter magazine. This was the beginning of a long friendship between the two, which Broadbent remembers fondly.
‘He was one of my dearest friends,’ said Broadbent. ‘He was a hero, making the most extraordinary wine with shells whizzing over his head. Generous and lovable, he was an amazing man, and an extremely good winemaker. He was one of the great characters, and he will be missed.’
Michael Broadbent’s son Bartholomew, who went on to represent Chateau Musar in a number of countries, described Hochar as ‘a second father’ and recounted his passion for getting out and seeing the world.
‘I have a bottle of 1967 Chateau Musar which was taken to be opened in the Antarctic on the New Year’s Eve of the millennium by an enthusiast. It was returned to me filled with water scraped from an iceberg. The next year, Serge called me from somewhere like the Easter Islands or Galapagos and I asked him why he was there. He replied, “I am on my way to Antarctica”. I asked him why he was going there. His answer was “because last year my wine was there and I want to go wherever my wine has gone”.’
Fluent in French, English and Arabic, Serge Hochar’s persistent travelling put him in touch with leading figures from the around the world of wine, and trips are remembered fondly by those he met. Jancis Robinson MW paid tribute to Hochar’s thought-provoking conversation, which often lent itself to discussing more than just wine matters.
‘Serge was so much more than a winemaker and the driving force behind Lebanon’s best-known winery. He had a strong spiritual character, but was very far from ascetic – positively impish in fact. Always great fun, he gave the impression of having a deep understanding of human nature and of understanding much more than superficialities. I always enjoyed his company enormously on the many occasions our paths crossed.’
Decanter consultant editor Steven Spurrier too remembers Hochar as a figure of inspiration. ‘I first met Serge Hochar in the early 1980s when he came into my shop in Paris,’ Spurrier said. ‘He became an occasional client and of course I began to sell Musar and so started a friendship that I never expected to end. Serge represented the art of the possible wrapped up in a cultured, almost old-fashioned, charm: a loveable inspiration to those whose life is wine.’
Making wine in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley during the civil war was a dangerous and risky endeavour. But Hochar was so convinced by the region’s terroir that he risked his life to make wine on a number of occasions. ‘The Bekaa Valley is like the Garden of Eden’, he said. ‘It gives Lebanese wine its greatest strength, quality fruit.’
Amid gunfire and rocket shells, Serge Hochar’s grapes were hand-picked and trucked 70 km to the winery at Ghazir which, during the war years, took days and sometimes 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.
It was this devotion to winemaking in the face of adversity that saw him named the first Man of the Year by Decanter magazine in 1984. Hochar would later be joined in this prestigious club by winemaking icons like Aubert de Villaine, Marchese Piero Antinori, Marcel Guigal and Christian Moueix, but Hochar remained its most active member, and in 2014, spearheaded a reunion for its 30th anniversary in London.
‘Serge Hochar was as original and surprising as his extraordinary wines,’ Decanter publishing director Sarah Kemp said. ‘As Decanter’s first Man of the Year in 1984, he was the benchmark by which the successive recipients were judged. I had the huge privilege of his friendship for thirty years and will miss terribly his wonderful warmth and consistent good humour.’
A daring and much-admired figure, the wine world mourns the loss of a brave pioneer, a winemaking icon, and an adventurous ambassador for his country, his profession and his philosophy.
Hochar leaves behind wife Tania, sons Gaston and Marc, and daughter Karine.
Andrew Jefford will be devoting next week’s Jefford on Monday to his personal account of Serge Hochar
To download a copy of Decanter Magazine’s 1984 feature on Serge Hochar winning the first Decanter Man of the Year award, click here.
Written by Decanter