I feel a certain irony writing about Chateau Musar during our lockdown here in the UK, given this estate and the family behind it (the Hochars) continued production in defiance of some of Lebanon's toughest times over the last 40 years, including through the country's 15-year Civil War. In 1989 the winery and the family home were directly hit by shelling, but, like some of the stories of determination and collaboration we are hearing today across the world, the Hochar brothers did more than stand their ground: for a short time they even used the cellars as a bomb shelter to give local people refuge. And now, decades on, the wines of Chateau Musar are exported globally with a fervent following around the world.
The Wine Society became the first wine merchant in the country to ship the wines- the 1967 vintage- describing the red in the April 1971 List as 'well-made, round, soft and without hard edges.' A simple description for a wine that has bewitched and baffled wine professionals and wine lovers. But it is exactly this eccentricity and edge that has lifted Musar's wines to cult-like status amongst members of The Wine Society.
The philosophy pioneered by the late Serge Hochar has always focused on non-intervention and a 'natural' approach to winemaking, with the courage to take risks and a determination to stick with his vision. His mantra was 'to make wine on the edge, every vintage is different. There is no one Chateau Musar exactly like the other.' But perhaps it's this quote that really sums up the fine line the Musar style treads - 'I once produced a wine that was technically perfect, but it lacked the charms of imperfection.' Serge's eldest son Gaston (third generation) now manages the day-to-day operation of the winery, upholding his father's mission and legacy.
Chateau Musar was established in 1930 by Gaston Hochar (first generation) at the tender age of 20. His inspiration was both the 6,000-year winemaking history of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and also his time in Bordeaux – a connection which was strengthened during the Second World War when he befriended Major Ronald Barton of Château Langoa-Barton while he was stationed in Lebanon. It was Ronald who persuaded the Hochars to plant cabernet sauvignon adding to Musar's exuberant carignan and cinsault bush vines. This is why Musar red can resemble claret one year and Châteauneuf the next, depending on which variety appears to hold the most promise.
Chateau Musar is a red that needs time in bottle and is usually kept in vats for several years by the Hochars before being released for sale (the next vintage to be released is the 2013, in a few months). As a general rule of thumb, the red tends to hit its peak 15 years from the vintage. The white Chateau Musar is made in an oxidative style that can often divide opinion - when it is excellent, it is reminiscent of old school white Rioja. For earlier drinking, the second wines, labelled Hochar Père et Fils, are made in the same distinctive style and are a perfect introduction to the mighty Musar brand.