In 1971 The Wine Society became the first British wine merchant to ship the wines of a Lebanese winery called Chateau Musar. Then, of course, the wine was little known here but it is now, unequivocally, a name with a cult following among members and one that bewitches many a wine drinker who falls under the spell of its unique, even idiosyncratic, but always fascinating and delicious charms.
The Hochar (pronounced Hosh-ar) family arrive, it is said, in Lebanon in the 12th century as ‘prieur chevaliers’, or chivalrous knights, and stayed. It was in 1930 that 20-year-old Gaston Hochar founded Chateau Musar, inspired by his travels in Bordeaux but also by the rich heritage of winemaking in Lebanon, a heritage that dates back many thousands of years. As his son Segre Hochar was later to say of one of Lebanon’s many ancient monuments: ‘This is the only serious temple erected to Bacchus [the god of wine] anywhere in the Roman world. And they put it here, in the Beka’a. Why? Because the Romans and Greeks, the Phoenicians and Minoans, and all peoples who came before them, all knew that the Beka’a is the spiritual home of wine.’
The Beka’a referred to is the valley of that name high in the heart of Lebanon. Musar’s vineyards are there, at the southern end of the valley about 30 kilometres south-east of the country’s capital Beirut. It seems odd, then, that the winery is 20 kilometres north of Beirut, requiring a journey by truck over the intervening mountains and down to the coast. The explanation intimates something of the turbulent history of Lebanon. When Gaston Hochar founded his wine business, Lebanon had not yet solidified its borders. Gaston was keen that, should the fluidity of the political situation shift unfavourably, and his vineyards end up beyond his country’s borders, he would not also lose his winery, now situated on safer ground.
Lebanon was at that time a post-first world War mandate of the French and this was in some respects fortuitous for Gaston, with Chateau Musar finding a receptive audience among the wine-loving French officers of the garrison and administrators, and earning the respect of Major Ronald Barton of Château Langoa-Barton in Bordeaux, who happened to be stationed there.
In 1959 Gaston’s son Serge, a civil engineer who had studied oenology at Bordeaux University, took on the running of the business, demanding that his father step aside to let him put his new ideas and methods to the test. That decision was pivotal and over the following years Serge achieved his stated aim of making a wine that would be known all over the world. To achieve this the Hochar family have had to face the immense difficulties of Lebanon’s desperately troubled modern history of civil war and invasion that has seen their cellars used as a bomb shelter by the local community, their house hit by shellfire and the logistical nightmare of getting grapes to the winery past military roadblocks and more shelling. They have done so with a fortitude and courage that astounds.
Today, after Serge’s tragic death in 2014, the Hochar family are still proudly at the helm of their iconic business. His two sons, Gaston and Marc, both studied engineering and worked in the banking sector, but Gaston now manages the day-to-day running of the winery, while Marc looks after its commercial aspects. Their vineyards in the Beka’a Valley cover 220 hectares and are planted with cabernet sauvignon, carignan, cinsault, grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, viognier, vermentino, chardonnay and native grapes obaideh and merwah. All are hand-picked by local Bedouins from August to October in a valley 1,000 metres above sea level, where the winters can be bitterly cold and snowy and the summers hot and dry. There are 300 days of sunshine a year and temperatures average 25°C across the year, making organic farming almost a default setting, and Musar is certified so. It is the first three grapes listed above that are the components of the flagship Chateau Musar red.
The winemaking methodology is, as Serge Hochar always intended, non-interventionist and natural, with ambient yeasts in the fermentation, a bare minimum of sulphur employed, and no fining or filtration of the finished Chateau Musar wine. It is absolutely the intention that every vintage be different, ‘to make wine on the edge’ as Serge put it. This approach leads to wines that to some are infuriatingly inconsistent and to many others beguilingly so. Let’s give the last word on this to Serge, who was decanter Man of the Year in 1984: 'I once produced a wine that was technically perfect, but it lacked the charms of imperfection.' He is sorely missed.
Browse all Musar wines