Post by Chuck Hayward | October 20th, 2010
One of the most incredible stories in today’s wine world is that of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar. With vineyards first planted in the Bekaa Valley in 1930, Serge Hochar and his family have made wine continuously through times of both peace and strife in his war-torn home. Any winemaker will tell you that harvest is a stressful, difficult labor of love under ideal circumstances. But with the added complication of bullets, mortars, and armed checkpoints, Serge has passionately persisted with an unparalleled dedication to his craft. Only twice in his decades-long career was he unable to complete harvest. In 1984, Decanter Magazine made Serge its first “Man of the Year” for his single-minded devotion to winemaking through such incredible conditions.
A recent invitation to a Chateau Musar tasting prompted me to clear my schedule—when you get the opportunity to meet with Serge personally, you go. Tasting with him is less a presentation centered on tastes and aromas, soil types or vineyard aspects related to his wines, than it is a discussion of deeper subjects—philosophy, life and wine’s inextricable role in those areas. As he said, “I am not as interested in talking about the world of wine as I am about wine’s place in the world.” Questions from our group served as launching points for Serge to talk about a variety of topics ranging from history to art and back to wine, sprinkled throughout with glimpses of his impish humor. Tasting with Serge is a graduate-school experience and at times I felt transported back to my days at LSU, albeit with much better refreshments.
The tasting started with the 2001 and 2002 vintages—both currently available in the US as Musar reds are not released until seven years after harvest—and then moved on to library selections. Both the 2001 and 2002 displayed Musar’s telltale flavors of sour cherries, overlayed with dusty, almost homey spice. Made from a blend of cabernet, carignane, and cinsault, Chateau Musar’s red wine is blended according to what the conditions dictate. These wines are not heavyweights, they are medium-bodied with little oak influence and very subtle tannins. A cross between Rhône and Bordeaux, they are approachable when released but gain greater complexity after another 7-8 years in the bottle. While Serge declined to name his favorite vintage, as “there are many beauties in the world,” he eventually declared the 1972 vintage to be “the greatest ever produced.” It was pretty special, still retaining a core of primary fruit with the secondary aromas of leather and roasted coffee.
Our tasting ended with a few whites made from grapes indigenous to Lebanon. Musar’s white wine is composed of a blend of merwah and obeidah, which Serge believes are ancient grape varieties that later gave birth to semillon and chasselas after they were transplanted to Europe. These wines are definitely unusual, being viscous yet dry, with hints of dried fruits and nuts in the aromas and flavors. The waxy, honeylike notes that emerged later are reminiscent of the rustic whites you often find in southwest France. It was a great finale to an incredible tasting.
People often focus on the influence a specific site can have on the way a wines tastes. I agree that terroir is something that can be perceived, but those grapes must still be interpreted by a winemaker. In the case of Chateau Musar, you cannot separate Serge Hochar from the wine in the glass. At a very energetic 70 years old (his “public” statement on the matter of his age), Serge is a relentless champion for Chateau Musar and he loves a crowd. Before the tasting, he had just flown in from Lebanon, was due to fly back the next day and is returning to the States in just two weeks to pour at a Wine Spectator event in Las Vegas. At the beginning of the event, Serge had observed that “wines are endless in their speech” and two hours later, he was still going strong while we were, regrettably, off to another meeting.
Two hours after our tasting with Musar ended, Serge and I met quite accidentally on the street as he departed a meeting with Jon Bonne of the San Francisco Chronicle. We said goodbye a second time, and then he was off to a dinner appointment, ever the tireless promoter of his wine. Endless indeed.