Sip a bottle of Château Musar and gut instinct might have you imagining yourself in the vineyards of Bordeaux,the region’s shell-flecked soil underneath your well-traveled feet, and a slight breeze ruffling the hair on your ever-so-happy head.
It’s a beautiful picture, and one that’s initially and amply supported by the characteristics of the richly hued wine your swirling in your rapidly emptying glass, but alas, your assumption would be incorrect. In fact, it’s about 2,000 some miles off the mark, because while Château Musar might ooze the French charm and flavor that epitomizes Bordeaux, this noteworthy estate and its dedicated team live and thrive in Lebanon.
The Making of a Chateau
Château Musar was founded in 1930, the physical manifestation of a tiny, wild idea dreamed up by Gaston Hochar while he was visiting Bordeaux. The estate currently runs under the auspices of Gaston’s sons, Serge and Ronald. Serge came on board first in 1959 as the estate’s manager, and Ronald joined his brother three years later, assuming control of the winery’s marketing and finance divisions. In 1959 Serge Hochar was returning from his own pilgrimage to Bordeaux where he had studied at the University of Oenology under such masters as Jean Riberau and Emile Peynaud.
It wasn’t until 1979 that two generation’s worth of hard work and dedication resulted in international recognition. The brothers took their prized creation to the Bristol Wine Fair, where noted British wine critic Michael Broadbent “discovered” this brilliant new Lebanese vineyard. With such a strongly influential man at the company’s back, Château Musar soon opened up for business in the UK signifying its official entry into the broader European market.
The journey has been a difficult and rough one. Winemaking is never a fuss-free process, but for many years the Hochar family practiced their craft in the middle of a hellish civil war that tore apart the country around them. Château Musar is in Ghazir, a small enclave only 15 miles north of Beirut. Fields were plowed under the threat of mortar fire and every day existence was fraught with fear and anxiety. Despite all that, there were only two years that Hochars failed to produce wine. There was nearly a third disaster in 1990, when military road blocks cut off access on the road that lead from the vineyard to the winery. For someone unfathomable reason, Hochar had chosen to harvest weeks earlier than scheduled, an anomaly that had never occurred before and has never been repeated since, and life went on. For his success in the face of marked adversity, in 1984 Decanter magazine nominated Serge Hochar as their first “Man of the Year.”
The Wines of Château Musar
Carla Rzeszewski is the wine director at NYC’s The Spotted Pig, a venue that hosted a much-lauded visit from Serge Hochar in 2012. In a New York Times article Rzeszewski was quoted as saying that
“I think the wine follows the winemaker, if the wine is honest and true and raw… Everybody is hungry for something that’s just honest, that’s forthcoming about where it comes from, instead of just being polished.”
There is indeed something wild about Musar wines; it’s like consumers can taste the winemaker’s penchant for coloring outside the lines.
Grapes are handpicked by local Bedouins, then fermented using ambient yeast and the bare minimum amount of sulphur. The wines are neither fined nor filtered, leaving them to speak their piece just as they are, like it or not. They have a lot to say, too. Their innate warmth speaks of the Bekaa Valley’s 300-days worth of annual sunshine; stick your nose in the glass and the odd, almost brambly herbaciousness hints towards things uniquely Lebanese.
Serge Hochar once told The Wall Street Journal,
“I like to say that my best red wines are my white wines.”
Musar whites are intense, full of body and velvety textures, swaddling the palate in honey and citrus and a swirl of oak-mellowed spice. Much of this is thanks to the addition of native grapes like Obaideh and Merwah, two varietals some believe to be the local version of Chardonnay and Semillon. These whites mesh beautifully with grilled poultry and at tastings, they often appear after courses paired with the vineyard’s reds.
Speaking of which, the red’s blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and Carignan results in a plum riddled swath of damsons, cherries, figs, dates, and cranberries strewn with pepper and violets. It’s supple and rich, slippery even, and having tasted bottles from as far back as the 1950’s, they hold up remarkably well.
Musar wines are often ranked highly by the likes of Robert Parker and his merry wine-sipping cohorots, but this is not to say these offerings are unconditionally loved. But then, what fun would that be? No, these funk-tinged reds and oddly powerful whites often toe the line of what some wine critics deem to be acceptable in terms of impossible-to-truly-define ideas like “tradition” and “perfection,” but it’s the wine’s odder edges that make it so memorable and interesting.
Time Marches On at Musar
Tradition is paramount at Château Musar, and this family run business is now headed by another Gaston Hochar, Serge’s son named after his visionary grandfather, and Ralph’s son Ronald. Serge himself has produced an astonishing 53 vintages, a staggering number that speaks to his dedication and perseverance.
The vineyards 180 acres are largely left as natural as possible, and Château Musar holds the distinction of being the first Lebanese producer to be certified organic, a designation that was all but superfluous given the land’s remote location and the producer’s hands-off approach. Perhaps that’s why you can taste so much of the region and the family behind the wine in each and every bottle.
Whatever the reason, it’s undeniable that these wines are one-of-a-kind. Even more importantly, they’re a big part of the redefining of the world’s attitude towards up-and-coming wine regions. Not everything magical in the wine world comes from the usual suspects, and an evening in with a bottle of Château Musar is a beautiful – and delicious – reminder of just that.