By Nick Hoyle
Any customer who has spoken to Nick in-store knows he’s a fountain of all wine knowledge and his passion for wine is second to none. Here he tells the story of his wine hero Serge Hochar.
The Lonely Planet travel guide describes Beirut, the capital of the Lebanon, thus: “If you’re looking for the real “east meets west” then you need look no further than Beirut…its energy, soul, diversity and intoxicating atmosphere make it a vital, addictive city.”
Well just maybe this is what “terroir” is all about – the soul of the wine – because the Lebanon’s famous wine, Chateau Musar, has an energy, a soul and is addictive and intoxicating in so many ways, it is as beguiling as Beirut and its story is woven in to that of the Lebanon.
The Lebanon has been an area of strife and conflict, on and off, for many years but the worldwide cult status of Chateau Musar is down in no small part to these conflicts and, of course, to the indefatigable charms and efforts of Serge Hochar the late lamented patron of Musar.
The Hochar family owe their presence in the Lebanon due to a much earlier conflict, the Crusades, when a Hochar ancestor was a French Crusader. The popularity of Chateau Musar, though, owes its fame to a more recent conflict, the Lebanese civil war of 1974-1990 and this is where the real story of Chateau Musar begins.
Serge, after a period studying oenology in Bordeaux with the great Emile Peynaud, returned to the Lebanon to take over from his father, Gaston, who had started Chateau Musar in the 1930s. Serge had a wish to create a distinctive and unique wine.
Musar was well received but its market was pretty much all in the Lebanon. This market was effectively destroyed in 1974 with the escalation of the Lebanese civil war. Serge though rolled his sleeves up and decided to take Musar out into the world. There was scarcely a wine event that he didn’t attend. Serge’s energy, drive, charisma and charm allied with his tireless globetrotting on behalf of his beloved Musar began to pay dividends.
In 1979, at The Bristol Wine Fair, the eminent English wine writer Michael Broadbent picked Chateau Musar out as the top wine of the Fair and this established Chateau Musar firmly on the world stage. So, although Musar was now in effect an internationally recognized and sought-after wine, there remained the tricky problem of producing it back in a land torn apart by conflict.
The grapes (Cabernet, Cinsault, Carignan and Grenache for the red, Obaideh and Merweh for the white) are grown in the Bekaa valley some 50 miles from the winery at Ghazir and there lies the problem when that area is a war zone. Astonishingly though, wine was made in every year but two of the conflict. In 1974, no electricity and impassable roads thwarted the vintage and in 1984 the grapes had to travel by sea but unfortunately began to ferment on the voyage and made the vintage impossible.
To make such marvellous wine is an achievement but to make it with tanks rolling through your vineyards and missiles flying overhead is nothing short of miraculous. There is a story that during one intense period of shelling, friends and family begged Serge to take cover but he refused. Instead he took a bottle of the 1972 poured it into one large glass and over the 12 hours of the shelling he noted carefully how it changed over time with exposure to the air. Such dedication.
This devotion and attention to detail is key to Musar. There is very little intervention, believing that each vintage says something different. It is, of course, organic and pretty much a natural wine (long before that epithet became trendy!)
So, if you are tired of the same old homogenised characterless wine that, although consistent, can be consistently dull and if you suspect “natural” wines are perhaps an oenological equivalent of the hipster’s beard, then give Musar a try. It has a real expression of place. It is a unique wine that is different to other wines and can even be different to itself vintage on vintage. This makes it interesting; it has character, it is after all a wine with soul!
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