A Vat Full of Miracles

Tasting Chateau Musar with Serge Hochar

Serge Hochar (Photo: Lyn Farmer)

Serge Hochar (Photo: Lyn Farmer)

Serge Hochar is an urbane gentleman who is not only passionate about wine and food, but freely shares that passion with equal ease in French, English and Arabic (and very possibly other languages I didn't broach with him). I have been a fan of wines of Chateau Musar since the 1980s, but really only got to know the wine well in 2006 when I spent two weeks in Europe with Hochar’s American importer Bartholomew Broadbent and had the chance to attend several tastings of Chateau Musar and discover for myself just how unique and long-lived the wine is.

The same might be said of the man who makes it. For years, Broadbent had regaled me with stories of Serge Hochar. Hochar seemed larger than life in these tales of this unusual winery caught in a war zone.

Beginning with his father Gaston, Serge Hochar’s family has been making Chateau Musar in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley for 80 vintages (the family is of French origin, but has lived in Lebanon since the 12th Centuryt). In Hochar's youth, Beirut was considered the Paris of the Middle East, a beautiful city with a vibrant, multi-ethnic culture. Sadly, that has changed with four decades of combat ranging from skirmishes to out and out war. And yet through all this Chateau Musar has continued to produce vintage after vintage, showing the resilience of vines, the determination of nature and the dedication of Serge Hochar's vision.

After years of tasting Chateau Musar, I finally met Serge Hochar in 2012 when we sampled a group of wines before and during a relaxed lunch. I was again reminded just how dazzling the wines are in their flavors and complexity, and how astonishing is their longevity — one of my favorites was an 11-year-old white and a 45-year-old red was the hit of the day. These elements have captured the imagination and purses of a rapt group of followers but they are simply the most obvious points Hochar ticks off in describing uniqueness of Musar. Larger than life? Perhaps, but Broadbent's stories about Hochar's dedication were not exaggerations, they were simple fact.

The Takeaway

The miracle of Lebanon is that we have so little technology and make a pure wine. (But) my wines are not classical — I make them only for myself and my taste.
— Serge Hochar

An afternoon or evening with Serge Hochar is a unique experience because you start out discussing wine, end up talking philosophy and, reflecting later, realize that there is no difference between the two. Meeting this war-zone sophisticate with a Cheshire cat’s smile ends up being an exercise in focus. He is a voluble conversationalist, and it is only in reviewing notes hastily scribbled during his quietly proffered commentary that one realizes he speaks in bullet points. It’s like curling up with a copy of the Cliff’s Notes version of A Guide To Wine in Unlikely Places (a book I would dearly like to write, but that's another story).

Here is the takeaway from an afternoon with Serge Hochar, the thoughts with which he punctuated our tasting: 

  • "The Bekaa Valley is at 3000 feet altitude, so very high as vineyards go. In our valley, there are three temples from Roman times:  one for Jupiter, one for Venus and one for Bacchus. Wine has always been a priority!"
  • "I don't need to taste my wines anymore - I can just look at them and know how they are doing.” [This is a nod by Hochar to the extraordinary visual expressiveness of his wines - because both the whites and the reds can age so long and change color over time, he has a huge spectrum to work with, full of subtle nuances of hue and tint that most wines never convey.]
Lebanon's Bekaa Valley   (Photo courtesy of Chateau Musar)

Lebanon's Bekaa Valley   (Photo courtesy of Chateau Musar)

  • "My motto is 'Be different and cultivate the difference.' I want my wines to have an identity, I want my wines to speak their own language.
  • "My wines are not classical. I make them only for myself and my taste. We have been certified organic for ten years but I've been doing this the same way for 50 years, just without the certification. It is the way of Musar."

[Hochar originally studied engineering and law, then decided to follow his father into the wine business at Chateau Musar. He received his oenology degree in Bordeaux in 1964]

  • "Today Chateau Musar Rouge is a roughly equal blend of three grapes to create a complete wine: cabernet sauvignon is the skeleton, cinsault is the muscle and carignan is the wine’s flesh. It took me 18 years to 'discover' this formula."
  • "Chateau Musar is fermented for 3-5 weeks in concrete vats and then we keep each variety separately for 6 months to a year in vats. We may age some of the wine for a few months in barrel, but I don't make 'wood wine' - to me, wood is (only) a stage of a wine’s development. [Regarding Hochar's use of wood, the 2005 Musar is a good case in point: the three grape varieties were fermented separately in concrete; the finished wines rested for nine months in cement vats, then spent a year in French (Nevers) oak before blending. Once the final blend was made, the wine spent another nine months in tanks before bottling. At that point, the winery held the bottles another four years before release.]
  • For the last 10 years I've been working mostly on my whites, not my reds — the reds (now) have a life of their own. "

  • "My white wine is made from two Lebanese varieties grown in Lebanon for centuries: merwah (a local variant of semillon) and obaideh (a local variant of chardonnay). These varieties don't mature until the end of October, and still they only reach a sugar level sufficient to give us 11% alcohol."
Chateau Musar's old vines in winter   (Photo: Chateau Musar)

Chateau Musar's old vines in winter  

(Photo: Chateau Musar)

  • "Our vines are 50 to 100 years old and on their own rootstock [in other words, they have not been grafted on a modern, disease resistant rootstock]. The roots go very deep and we have great terroir — this is why the wines are so complex. Some of the white vines are 200 years old and this gives some of the color to the wines"
  • "These wines have such staying power. Some say oxidation is a bad thing, but for me oxidation is a natural stage of life. I don't try to get it out of the wine – I raise the wine through it."
  • "We have no special technique in making our wines – it’s a natural process. Like the reds, we hold the whites for 7 years (before releasing them)."
The cellars of Chateau Musar

The cellars of Chateau Musar

  • "We only release our wines after seven years resting in vats and bottle. It wasn't always like this — In my opinion, the wines actually aren't ready, not truly ready, until they have 15 years in which to mature. We used to wait longer, but unfortunately, history intervened. In 1975 the (Mideast) war started and our market (at home in Lebanon) disappeared so we had to seek new markets, and that meant developing an export strategy and we needed wine to do that. I am here because of war - we sold nearly all our wine in Lebanon until the war came. In 1967 we sold 97% in Lebanon. Today we sell about 20% in Lebanon and export 80%."
  • "In 1976 (because of the fighting) we could not get the grapes to the winery in time to make a wine but the grapes have triumphed every other year.” [Transportation is frequently an issue because the winery is just north of Beirut while the grapes are grown in the Bekaa Valley 75 kilometers to the Northeast. That isn't a great distance but the roads, like so much in Lebanon today, are challenging.]
  • "Our total production is 58,000 cases, mostly red. We only make 2,000 cases of white wine. We have the flagship wines, Chateau Musar Rouge ($50) and Blanc ($47), and three wines called Musar Jeune, a red, a rosé and a white, from younger vines ($24)."
  • "With 15 minutes, I can convince anyone about (the value of) Musar but I can't be everywhere!"

Savoring Musar

Ready to be convinced? Here are 14 wines to sample, virtually at least, along with my tasting notes and reflections. I've included not only the wines I tasted with Serge Hochar, but the current releases as well. We begin with Chateau Musar's "young" wine:

 

Musar Jeaune

Chateau Musar’s “Jeune” wines are made from fruit sourced from Bekaa Valley vines at around 1000 meters. This altitude ensures the vines grow in relatively cool temperatures (around 25 degrees celsius) and close to 300 sunny days a year. The wines receive no oak aging to preserve their fresh and vibrant aromas and flavors.

Musar Jeune White 2013

Musar Jeune White is a departure in style for Musar. While the “regular” Musar focuses on two grape varieties with long aging potential, Musar Jeune uses three varieties not found in the standard bottling - viognier (40%), vermentino (30%) and chardonnay (30%).

The 2013 harvest produced a wine that is pale lemon yellow in color, with lovely tropical aromas of pineapple, lychee and apricot as well as some appealing honeyed citrus on the palate. The silky texture of the wine is as notable as the array of flavors - it is full bodied without being heavy or cloying. There is a thin vein of minerality running through the wine onto the long and dry finish. My only misgiving about the wine is that it is a bit ponderous; it would be crisper with a bit more acidity.

The contemporary label of Musar Jeune is consistent across all three bottlings

The contemporary label of Musar Jeune is consistent across all three bottlings

Musar Jeune Rosé 2013

Musar Jeune Rosé is made entirely from cinsault from 45 year old vines fermented in stainless steel. The wine rests three months in tanks before bottling.

Deep rose with orange highlights. Some early oxidation blew off with exposure to the air, yielding lovely aromas of red fruit, especially strawberries, and a subtle rose flower note with a hint of spice and herbaceous quality. The wine is broad on the palate with a bit of tannic bite to give it structure and a satisfying spice note on the long finish.

Musar Jeune Red 2013

2013 Musar Jeune Red is made from organic grapes grown in younger vineyards. The wine is primarily from cinsault  (50%) and syrah (30%), with a bit of cabernet sauvignon (20%) for structure. The wine is fermented at fairly cool temperatures (around 30 degrees Celsius) then allowed to rest in concrete for nine months before bottling.

The deep, nearly impenetrable purple color primed me to taste a heavy wine, but in fact it is quite agile on the palate. Notably high acidity gives it a lean and wiry feeling on the palate. Hints of wild herbs and scrub brush on the nose and palate, some warm red fruit and good length. As with the other Jeune wines, this bottle expands with aeration - appealing, but needs food to show its best.


Chateau Musar Rouge (all are commercially available)

Chateau Musar 2007

Deep crimson red color in the glass with a youthful nose punctuated by some animalic notes that slowly dissipate with air to reveal tar, resin and bright black fruit. The palate is youthfully compressed but time in the glass allows the cassis and plummy black fruit to emerge with some prune and cedar. There is a lot here wrapped in this vibrant acidity, but this is a wine that is carefully guarding its secrets and needs a few more years to show just how seriously accomplished it is. Even now, though, with a lamb and olive tagine this will be pretty spectacular

Chateau Musar 2003

Surprisingly (and relatively) light in color, the wine is very bright crimson/ruby. The evocative nose shows leather and violets with a mineral undercurrent. On the palate, the minerality is quite present with ripe tannins and lovely black fruit in a balanced package. Quite long with a bit of a metallic edge to the close.

Chateau Musar 2001 

Beautiful deep ruby color, with a gorgeous leather and violet aroma (this combination is rapidly shaping up to be a Musar hallmark). This vintage is particularly forward for Musar with a very expressive bouquet and palate. In the mouth, it is soft and elegant with robe of ripe tannins enveloping sweet black fruit, illuminated by a laser beam of minerality.

Chateau Musar 2000

Just beginning to show a bit of brick at the rim while the center remains an appealing medium ruby color. The color shows the wine's age, but that's not evident on the nose. The bouquet has a beguiling floral element as the nose teases out a touch of rose petal. The palate has an earthy character with a bit of animalic barnyard quality and a grilled red fruit quality. This is heady stuff, a mélange of components not usually experienced together. Earthy and wild with a drying finish. I like it!

Chateau Musar 1993 

Very even medium ruby color with brick highlights. Sweet and toasty nose. Exceptional balance and great depth with some plum and fig flavors, all framed with firm and appealing acidity. This isn't the acidity left behind by faded fruit in older wines, this is an element that emerges on its own, in harmony with the fruit. 

Chateau Musar 1967 - amazingly, still available in limited quantities

Chateau Musar 1967 - amazingly, still available in limited quantities

Chateau Musar 1967

Pale brick color - it looks for all the world like a wine well past its prime, but that is just the perception of the eye. On the nose, the aromas are at first faint, but very persistent, even insistent with hints of forest floor, subtle barnyard and a waft of orange peel. This smells as if it were compiled by a perfumer. The palate is tight and nervous and the flavors emphasize citrus. The wine vibrates on the palate with exceptional length — this is an astonishingly persistent wine. As it unfolds on the palate, like some sort of vinous slinky descending a stairway, it continues to unveil it's minerality. What is this experience? It is part Bordeaux and part Burgundy, magical in its subtlety.

Time for a Surprise

Hochar seems never to be at a loss for words, and always has a surprise up his sleeve. When the glasses for the red tasting were cleared, another set appeared. I think, "what can possibly come after the sublime Chateau Musar 1967?" His eyes twinkle. "Once you taste my whites you cannot taste the reds so we have the whites second!" This would be patently absurd for most wineries, but for Chateau Musar, Hochar demonstrates the truth of his contention by pouring a young white after his oldest red - it is a seamless flow. One is challenged to forget about color and focus on experience — the experience of taste, texture and elegance.

Chateau Musar Blanc 2006

Chateau Musar White 2006.jpg

Medium lemon yellow color with a hint of gold. The wine has an evocative and rather elusive nose - it's a bit like an aromatic belly dance that is full of promise and seduction but is agonizingly slow to reveal its charms. Those charms, spun out with deliberate pace, include aromas of dried orange peel and pear, and a subtle waft of wild herbs on a sun-baked hillside. Hints of citrus and white flowers scud across the palate with well-disguised acidity lurking in the background, skating on a foundation of stony minerality. At first the wine seems soft but the acidity slowly asserts itself and gives great dimension to the wine. This is not a wine of quick or easy pleasure, but a wine that demands focus and attention. It is most revealing as it warms - I think a cool cellar temperature is best for serving this, but leave it in the cellar a few more years!

Chateau Musar Blanc 2004

Medium pale gold. The bouquet is a bit oxidative but there is massive fruit underneath. Oxidized on the entry then lots of pear and spicy fruit blasts through. Graphite minerality that goes on and on. Is it possible this wine is still a bit too young? Yes!

Chateau Musar Blanc 2003

Medium gold color — already as a taster you are shifting your stance a bit, becoming accustomed to the fact that all the rules and consistencies you’ve learned go out the window with Musar. Let’s sell this wine, that were it from anywhere else would be dismissed for its dark color alone. But the aroma says odd youthfulness and age in one package. It is closed and earthy, with dusty aromas that verge on corkiness. Loads of minerality and very nice stone fruit notes. It’s a bit awkward at this point but this is a massive wine that will be stunning with time.

Chateau Musar Blanc 2001

Medium gold bronze. Despite the color, there is no oxidation on nose - it’s all buttery caramel and pencil lead minerality with stone fruit flavors spreading wide on the palate. Lovely length - this is what Musar Blanc is all about.

Chateau Musar Blanc 1999

Medium gold color with soft mineral aromas.  On the palate this is fresh very fresh with subtle stone fruit dusted with a bit of lime leaf on the long finish. Still tightly wound, this slowly unfolds in the glass. Really elegant. 

The Finish

Wine does not care about war or peace. It has a life of its own. If grapes arrive at the winery, yeast arrives and wine results — you see, it is a very natural thing to make wine.
— Serge Hochar

The beauty of a tasting like this is that it is not the sort of exercise wine snobs love because they are trying wines no one else can taste. Thanks to Hochar's judicious policy of conserving some of his production and Musar's extraordinary longevity, nearly every vintage made of Chateau Musar Blanc since 1954 and Musar Rouge since 1956 is still available. It might take a special request to your favorite wine merchant, but isn't it comforting to know that you can taste history just by asking?

Hochar leans back from the table, smiling. He is done talking, but the wine is not. Rising up from the glass, it spins a story of place, of struggle and determination, ultimately, of timelessness. I tell Hochar how much I love each of his wines, not least because each is different from all the others.

He smiles, nods and says, "If you learn about Musar you learn about your senses. Wine is the biggest thing for the senses and for opening the senses. Wine does not care about war or peace  it has a life of its own. If grapes arrive at the winery, yeast arrives and wine results — it is a very natural thing to make wine."

It may be natural, but that does not mean it is always easy. "The miracle of Lebanon is that we have so little technology and (yet) we make a pure wine." Miracle? Earlier Hochar used the word "magic" and both words ring in my consciousness. Here is a supremely realistic man, a man shaped by terroir and strife, who still believes in magic and miracles. I raise my glass to him and the wine continues to speak.