MY COLUMN this week is dedicated to one of the most inspiring men of the wine world, Serge Hochar, who died while on holiday with his family, aged 75.
A passionate, determined and eloquent Lebanese winemaker, he has left a tremedous legacy in Chateau Musar.
When Hochar took over his father Gaston’s winery near Beirut and the family vineyards in the Bekaa Valley, Chateau Musar was little known, selling just in Lebanon itself. His vision and determination during the civil war years of the 1970s and 1980s put Lebanese wine on the map. Chateau Musar became a worldwide cult favourite and Serge was named Decanter’s first Man of the Year in 1984.
Despite having to traverse a battleground from the Bekaa Valley vineyards to the coastal winery 15 miles north of Beirut, Serge managed to get trucks of grapes across the frontline and make wine in almost every vintage (except 1976 when he had no electricity and roads were impassable – and in 1984 when delays meant he made a madeira-style wine).
There were caves in the Bekaa vineyards where the workers could escape the bombs. “We just had to believe,” said Hochar. There were times he had to pick shrapnel out of the grapes when they arrived at the winery.
For those lucky enough to have met Serge, he was an extremely humble and entertaining character. Not only a trained winemaker (he studied in Bordeaux under Emile Peynaud), Hochar was a poet, philosopher and a wonderful dinner guest, described by wine writer Jancis Robinson as, “always great fun, positively impish, in fact”.
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Hochar was highly enterprising, with unusual ideas and a passion for natural and organic winemaking. Not everyone agreed with him and some thought his wines overpriced and downright weird, but many more loved his unique wine.
Chateau Musar was not just a fusion of French grapes and Middle East spice, it was something quite original. The blend of Bordeaux grape cabernet sauvignon with southern French grapes cinsault and carignan as well as the focus on French traditional winemaking techniques was hardly surprising, given the links between Lebanon and France. The Hochars had a strong relationship with Bordeaux and Serge lived in Paris for many years, particularly during the worst of the civil war in Lebanon.
What Hochar did in terms of winemaking was unusual. He would only blend the different varietals together once they had spent at least two years in French oak barrels. He would then leave them for one year in cement tanks to marry together, then bottle the blend, leaving it for another four years in bottle before releasing it on to the market: so a total of seven years after vintage.
He did not believe in en primeur, selling wines before they were ready to drink. He released his vintages of Chateau Musar when he felt they were mature enough – as he didn’t want them drunk too young. Aged Musar can be wonderful in the best vintages.
He had an unusual penchant for volatile acidity as he felt it “lifted” the aroma, something usually avoided by many winemakers. “Wine is fun, I don’t care,” was Hochar’s retort to those who complained about the excess volatile acidity.
My own experience of Chateau Musar is of a truly fascinating wine and it featured at a Cult Wine tasting I hosted in Edinburgh last month. Matched against much pricier cult wines of the world from Penfolds Grange, Australia, Ornellaia and Tignanello from Italy, Pesquera from Spain and The Armagh from Australia, his Chateau Musar 1999 stood up very well. It was voted second favourite (after the legendary Penfolds Grange 1997 at eight times the price) – and Musar was voted the top “most inspiring Cult wine”.
The only thing I could not agree with Hochar on was his white wine, made from local obaideh and merwah white grapes grown at high altitude at 4,000 feet. Hochar believed his whites were his greatest creation. Tasting a youthful vintage, I remember him telling me it would last 30 years. I didn’t agree then and still cannot, but I will continue to drink his reds.
Even with the influx of Lebanese wineries now being revived or developed, the best of which are Ksara (Lebanon’s oldest), Domaine des Tourelles and Massaya, Chateau Musar is still considered Lebanon’s best and it should remain so. The future of Chateau Musar appears to be in good hands. Serge had already handed the reins of the business to his sons, Gaston and Marc, who have introduced second label, Hochar, and less expensive Jeune red, white and rosé wines, so that Chateau Musar can be enjoyed by more wine-lovers worldwide.
• Join Rose’s Beginners Wine Classes on Wednesday 11, 18 and 25 February at 28 Queen Street, Edinburgh, from £36, www.rosemurraybrown.com
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