Chateau Musar – The Legend of Lebanon
THE LEGEND OF LEBANON
by Paul Howard
Wine making in the Lebanon possibly started as far back as 7,000 BC, in the Biblical countries of Canaan and Phoenicia, lands of Milk and Honey. Phoenicians traded Lebanese wines around the Mediterranean before the Romans did the same, while during the Middle Ages they were highly prized by Venetian merchants. When Lebanon was part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire wine making was tolerated for religious purposes. In modern times, Cinsault vines from Algeria were first planted in Lebanon in 1857 at Chateau Ksara to make dry table wines. French control until independence in 1943 then left a lasting influence on Lebanese wine culture and style and Beirut became known as the Paris of the Middle East.
Lebanon is bordered by Syria, Israel and Jordan and the sectarian civil war and regional conflicts that have raged in these countries have left a legacy of violence and destruction. This Mediterranean country is as much known for the fortitude of its people, and the courage of hostages like John McCarthy and Brian Keenan, as it is known for its extraordinary beauty.
The blight of war has restricted, but not deterred, wine making and though quantities are small, Lebanese wine quality is generally good and frequently excellent. Today there are some 120 producers and 35 wineries, mostly in the Bekaa Valley, offering white, rosé and red wines plus sweet dessert wines and the fiery spirit, Arak. Of these wineries, Chateau Musar remains the best and the most venerated, included in many listings of the world’s top wineries. Indeed in the UK, Musar has been synonymous with Lebanese wine for the past three decades. It was founded in 1930 and is owned by the Hochar (pronounced Hoshar) family.
The current head of the family, Serge Hochar, trained in Bordeaux and although the winery was founded by his father and recently celebrated its eightieth anniversary, Chateau Musar only reached British shores in 1979, when its debut caused a sensation. For nearly twenty years afterwards it remained the only Lebanese wine available in Britain. During that time, red Chateau Musar developed a devoted cult following that has grown with each successive vintage. Under Serge Hochar’s leadership, Chateau Musar also makes a white and a rosé. A “second label” has also been introduced, (Hochar Pére et Fils) and more recently a range of young wines designed for immediate drinking (Jeune Musar) has appeared. Now there is a slightly confusing family of Musar wines, but all shelter under the reputation of Big Daddy Red.
Why has Chateau Musar become such a cult? In some years it rivals the best bottles of Bordeaux in quality and yet it is recognisably individual and varies from year to year. It also remains modestly priced despite its success. Even old vintages are available and they are easy to find and affordable when compared with most fine wines. Because the wine is extremely long lived and each vintage year matures on its own path, there is always something new to discover, no matter how many times a bottle is opened. Given the history of regional conflicts it is also miraculous that Chateau Musar has only been prevented from making wine twice, in 1976 and 1984, a testament to resilience in the face of war and terror. Grapes have had to be transported across Front Lines, the winery has suffered direct hits from shelling, there have been Syrian tanks in the vineyards and the cellars are proven air-raid shelters. In Lebanon, Chateau Musar is hardly alone in its suffering, but it has endured for longer than most.
Some try to pigeonhole the red Chateau Musar style as if it were from Bordeaux, the Rhône or some other Southern French region. Some describe it as Claret-with-an-edge, while one or two even find something Burgundian about it. The reality is that it is simply a unique expression of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and it remains a red wine unlike any other. Chateau Musar red is an organically certified blend made with French varieties; usually 50-80% Cabernet Sauvignon, plus Cinsault and Carignan, added in various amounts according to the harvest year.
Serge Hochar’s winemaking philosophy is to let each wine develop its own character over many years, with minimal intervention, low sulphur and without fining or filtering. He is on record as saying that, “The Cabernet is the skeleton, the Carignan is the flesh and muscles, Cinsault the smooth skin.” Occasionally he might add a little Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre or even Merlot to the mix, though what body parts Serge thinks these might represent is not recorded.
Why is Chateau Musar red so distinctive? Technically, it has high levels of Volatile Acidity, or VA. This is recognised as the whiff of nail polish or acetone. While most wines will have some, it is usually at undetectably low levels. When present in higher concentrations it usually indicates a fault, as in most cases it means that oxygen and bacteria are starting to turn the wine to vinegar. However in Musar, VA is an essential component and adds a meaty complexity. Fortunately, Musar also has the body, tannins, fruit concentration and alcohol to balance it. Serge Hochar actively encourages VA, which is helped by the inevitable oxidation that results from the need to transport the freshly handpicked grapes some thirty miles from his Bekaa Valley vineyards to his winery at Ghazir, near Beirut. In short, this controversial wine style polarises opinion. It’s what I call a Marmite wine – you’ll either love it or hate it. Serge Hochar’s view is unequivocal; “the harmony of nature is better than anything we could ever create. I believe it should be a priority to seek to drink what is ‘true’ rather than what is ‘good.’ I once produced a wine that was technically perfect but it lacked the charms of imperfection.” Charms there are many, but one thing is sure, you’ll always remember the first time.
All this makes the comparison of several vintages of Chateau Musar a popular and not infrequent pastime of wine-lovers, including me. In the wine trade this is prosaically known as a “vertical” tasting. Amongst a group of friends it’s much more fun than that – we just call it a Musarathon. There will probably be one going on somewhere in the world right now, where each member of the group brings a different bottle of Musar. Opening a single bottle always has an anticipatory thrill – opening several is like going to heaven. It is fascinating how this wine can change in your glass over a few minutes and a bottle can evolve over several days.
With food, Chateau Musar red is brilliant with Middle Eastern and North African dishes, as you might expect. Try mezze, (a selection of small dishes including hummus, anchovies, olives, chickpeas, buckwheat and pitta bread), charmoula, (a North African pesto of lemon juice, parsley, coriander, cumin and fennel for fish and chicken), and salads (tabbouleh and fattoush). If you prefer traditional British dining then roast lamb and mature hard cheeses hit the spot.
I’m hardly the first to write about the inspiring story of Musar and I won’t be the last. So lest I be accused of cliché and repetition, I insist that this is a story worthy of frequent retelling. A story passed on to each new generation of wine lovers and a reminder to those fortunate enough to already know. If it wasn’t for Musar the fine wine potential of Lebanon might still be undiscovered. That there are now other rival Lebanese wineries making their own great reds is in some part down to Musar.
I remain in awe of what Musar has achieved, so why not hold your own memorable Musarathon and join the cult?