Grapevine Archive for Chateau Musar
‘Wines are made to be opened and enjoyed. Tomorrow the wines may not be here or you may not be here.’ – Serge Hochar, November 2014Lebanon’s great wine luminary Serge Hochar passed away last week whilst on holiday with his family in Mexico. He was 75.
Serge Hochar was the driving force behind Chateau Musar, having taken over the reins as winemaker from his father Gaston in 1959. At this time, the wines were sold exclusively in Lebanon, but under Serge’s stewardship Chateau Musar became one of the great internationally celebrated wines of the world.
However, Serge leaves far more than a monumental winemaking legacy. He will be remembered as much for his charismatic, eccentric personality and sense of fun, which touched everyone who had the chance to meet him.
The Wine Society’s first contact with Serge was during his UK visit in the late 1960s when he met with then Society buyer, Christopher Tatham, to taste the new vintages of Musar. The tasting was a success and The Wine Society became the first wine merchant in the country to ship the wines: the 1967 listed in April 1971.
Since then, Musar, especially the red, has always held a special place with members of The Society. It is a wine style like no other: both bewitching and baffling, reflecting Serge’s non-interventionist approach to winemaking, his courage to take risks and his determination to stick with his vision. As he once said, ‘I once produced a wine that was technically perfect but it lacked the charms of imperfection.’
It was family friend Ronald Barton of Château Langoa Barton in Bordeaux who persuaded the Hochars to plant cabernet sauvignon, adding to Musar’s exuberant carignan and cinsault bush vines in the Bekaa Valley. It is why Musar red can resemble claret one year and Châteauneuf the next, depending on which variety or varieties appear to hold the most promise.
In 1984 Serge was chosen as Decanter magazine’s first-ever recipient of the ‘Man of the Year’ award, for continuing production in defiance of Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War. And now, three decades on, the wines of Chateau Musar are exported globally with a fervent following around the world.
Serge said: ‘I make wine on the edge, every vintage is different. There is no one Chateau Musar exactly like the other.’
Likewise, it is fair to say that there is no personality in the wine world like Serge. He will be missed.
I was delighted to host a tasting of eight vintages of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar last month, attended by some 50 Society members. It was a great chance to examine what makes this iconic Lebanese wine so special.
We were fortunate to look at four of the estate’s most reputed years – 2005, 1997, 1995 & 1993. The wines all showed beautifully.
The currently available 2005 (£20 per bottle) continues to impress me: still in its first flush of youth and with plenty of time ahead, it is such a beautifully complete wine. The 2003 (also currently available for £20 per bottle) had a more subdued nose but a lovely, fleshy, sweet-fruited palate that everyone really enjoyed.
The 1998 was the most surprising wine of the tasting: this has come round well and is drinking perfectly now. It was one of the favourite wines amongst those present. It was nice to hear from Musar’s Jane Sowter that our thoughts chimed with those at the estate’s: ‘We didn’t use to feature it much and it was always overshadowed by the 1997 and 1999,’ she told me, ‘but everyone falls in love with it now.’ It is not hard to see why.
The 1997 provided a fascinating and delicious contrast to the elegant 1998: powerful and bold, it is full of flavour with an attractive spicy note that was pure pleasure to taste. The 1995 bowled me over: an amazing and dazzling wine. The 1993 was also superb, in a more mellow yet structured way.
The final wine was the fully mature 1977, and it was interesting to see this complex, cloudy and leathery Musar divide opinion. Some adored it, while others found its more savoury, less fruit-forward style challenging. Even more so than with punchier modern vintages, personal preference does seem to play a part when tasting wines of this age. Personally, I thought it showed the complex tertiary flavours you expect with a fine, high-quality aged wine yet was still incredibly fresh and lively on the palate.
All in all, a fantastic Musar tasting.
Society Buyer for Lebanon
There are difficult vintages and there are difficult vintages. From the Californian drought of ‘77 to 2003s scorching European heatwave via the Bordeaux washout of ‘92, Mother Nature finds a variety of ways to test the mettle of both vine and man the world over.For most winemakers the common worries of a vintage concern the weather: too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet and/or a multitude of other combinations. Throw in a host of generally unpleasant diseases that prove troublesome to the vine and a tricky economic climate and the winemaker’s lot is not always a happy one.
But then of course there is the other kind of difficult vintage, those where man despite all the elements being in balance does his utmost to throw a spanner into nature’s carefully constructed works.
2006 was one of those difficult vintages for Lebanese winery Chateau Musar. Indeed at Chateau Musar difficult vintages can sometimes be translated as dangerous vintages.On July 12th the troubles that had blighted Lebanon through the latter part of the last century rose to the fore once again with the start of the 34-day conflict with Israel. Over 1,300 people lost their lives and approximately half a million more were displaced, and serious damage was inflicted to the country’s civil infrastructure.
Given such circumstances the team at Musar could have easily been forgiven if they had decided to look to their own safety first and leave the grapes hanging on the vines while the conflict raged around them. The grapes were harvested safely thanks to the dedication and bravery of the vineyard workers.
But sadly such adversity is not new in a country plagued by over 15 years of civil war and Chateau Musar has a proven history of shining when the days are darkest. Incredibly only two vintages were missed during the war years of 1975–1990. That the Musar winery is located just outside Beirut makes this achievement all the more astonishing. Indeed, the journey from their vineyards in the Bekka Valley to the winery is a particularly dangerous one, following a route known to be used by Hezbollah and in times of war often subjected to shelling by artillery.
Much has been written about Musar’s enigmatic figurehead, Serge Hochar. He was Decanter Magazine’s inaugural man of the year in 1984, and today in his 70s he still exudes energy and travels extensively. His eldest son, Gaston, named after his grandfather whose name appears on the label and who founded the winery in the 1930s, now looks after the day-to-day running of the estate and while of a different, perhaps calmer character to his father, he shares the same passion that that has propelled Musar to become a wine of worldwide acclaim ever since its emergence onto the international wine scene back in the late 1970s. Both men are engaging, unique and deservedly well renowned throughout the world of wine – qualities that are also rightly used to describe Chateau Musar itself.
The Society was one of the first merchants to import Chateau Musar into the UK, and we are delighted to announce that both Serge and Gaston Hochar will be visiting our premises in Stevenage as part of our Grand Day Out event on May 19th. They will be pouring wines and talking to members as well as hosting a masterclass showcasing several Musar vintages.
A fitting opportunity, then, to raise a glass to this remarkable estate and to pause and reflect on the dedicated and sometimes quite incredible efforts that go into making great wine.
Marketing Campaigns Manager for Lebanon