Red Red Wine

Massoud A. Derhally reports on the success story of 75 years of winemaking in the Arab world from one of the region’s best-known wineries — Chateau Musar.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  July 31, 2005

Red Red Wine|~|WINERY-PIC-200.jpg|~|CASK KING: The oak casks in which Chateau Musar’s wines are aged cost serveral hundred dollars each and are imported from France.|~|Wine isn’t exactly the first that comes to mind when you think of the Arab world, but many will be surprised to know the Arab world, and in particular Lebanon — which has 15 producers — not only produces wine, but good-quality wine. The leading producer in Lebanon, Château Musar, is by far the most known internationally. Thirty years ago, Musar was one of those well kept secrets that connoisseurs knew of and its marketability came down to word of mouth. But if that was the case 30 years ago, it certainly isn’t today. In Europe, America and many other parts of the world Château Musar is renowned for dishing out complex, unique, delectable wine that is distinctive in taste whether it is red, white or rosé. The winery's tale started three quarters of a century ago. The story of wine making at this chateau is steeped in tradition that dates back to the time of the Phoenicians and has put Musar in the same league as the new world wines from Chile, Argentina and South Africa. “My grandfather (Gaston Hochar) started the business in the mid-1930s and then my father (Serge Hochar) then began making the wine in 1959 and has been doing this for over 50 years now and it’s still a family business,” says Gaston Hochar, the grandson of the founder. Speaking at his 18th century castle, which serves as Musar’s headquarters in Ghazir — a suburb that lies north of Beirut — Hochar speaks over several hours about how Château Musar evolved over the years, yet very much remains a family business “My father deals with production and tastings abroad. My uncle is in charge of marketing and distribution. I joined 10 years ago,” says Hochar, who was once a software engineer and worked at a bank in France. But he left that life and joined his father to further develop the business. “My father was always asking me to come back to help with the business. At the beginning I said no. I wanted to have outside experience. Five years later I had enough and came back. I’ve been in the wine business now for 10 years; learning about wine, how it tastes, all the little details that make the reputation of Chateau Musar,” says Hochar smiling. Hochar’s grandfather started the business, which has its vineyards in the Bekaa Valley — known more for its lush vegetation and the export of hashish — in Lebanon during the colonisation era in the Arab world. “My grandfather started the business because at the time we were under the French mandate at there was potential for the wine,” says Hochar, adding, “He started producing wine and he was the first to put wine in bottles. It was put in jars before.” But the company and the techniques employed in the making of Musar changed with every new generation of the family joining the business. “When my father joined the business he changed some things. He went to Bordeaux and came back and applied what he had learned and followed a certain philosophy after doing a lot research,” says Hochar. “The process has been evolving over the years in line with the grapes, the climate, and the environment that has been changing over the last 40 years. The philosophy from the beginning when my father came on board was to try to make wine in the most natural way possible without any additives and we still continue with that philosophy.” Hochar’s father Serge, who trained in France and took over cellar duties in 1959, managed to turn out wines even during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 year civil war with the exception of two years. “We continued producing wines during the war from 1975 until 1990. Life continued in Lebanon independently from the war so things had to continue,” explains Hochar. The vineyard today produces three red wines, a white, a rosé and even the colourless anise-flavoured liqueur Arak. Of the batch, the red Chateau Musar, which is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cinsault, and carignan, with grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre is the grand vin. The Chateau Musar, which is aged in French oak for one year, differs from year to year, but has a distinctive and complex aroma with a texture of Bordeaux, Shiraz and a Southern Rhône. It’s a wine that is made to age 20 to 40 years, according to Hochar. It’s bottled after three years and released after seven. “We don’t add yeast to the wine, which is used by some to enhance their product. But we add a hint of sulphur, which is an anti-oxidant. “There are two harvests that are missing, which is 1976 because of the war and 1984. We started picking, but the grapes had a problem arriving at the winery. We had some influence because of the war. 1983 was a late vintage and 1990 was an early harvest, which shows in the wine. The 1983 has a good strength in alcohol and is quite rich. The 1990 because it was picked up early has more acidity,” says Hochar. A second red by the vineyard is Hochar Père et Fils, which also goes into French oak, but for a smaller period of six to nine months and a third red the Cuvée Musar, which is a much lighter wine. Hochar Père et Fils is bottled after two years and released after a further two years. Musar cuvee is bottled at the end of the harvest year and released after six months to a year, making it easier to drink. The white Chateau Musar 1998 is a blending of two local grape varieties, Obeideh and Merwah, varieties that go back 4000 to 5000 years, when they were produced and sold to the Assyrians and also the Pharaohs of Egypt. According to the legend, the grapes were taken back to Europe with the Crusaders and are the likely ancestors of Chardonnay and Semillon respectively. “It’s a grape that you have at an altitude of 1300 metres, which are harvested in October and then fermented in the winery in French oak,” explains Hochar. The white Musar has complexity and length of a red wine. It has tannins and the power of red wines. The company has launched a new product, Rubis in Lebanon, and says so far the response has been good. The several hundred-dollar oak barrels imported from France in which the wine ferments, and the climate in which the grapes are grown, greatly influence the overall finish of a harvest. The climate in the Bekaa Valley, engulfed by Mount Lebanon, is considered to be one the best in the world, with cool, rainy winters; dry and non-scorching summers. The Bekaa has a long and successful winemaking tradition. With most of its vineyards sitting more than 3000 feet above sea level. “You can never apply the same thing every year,” says Hochar. “With wine every year is different you have to adapt yourself to nature and this is both difficult and interesting. Wine is a living product. It evolves and then breathes. Its smell and taste change gradually and taste is very subjective,” he adds. So what is the maximum one should wait to drink a wine? There is no maxim. “The wines continue evolving. We don’t have a limit,” says Hochar. “We consider that our Chateau Musar shouldn’t be drunk before 12 to 15 years depending on the vintage, to be able to enjoy them thoroughly. But they could be drunk before.” What distinguishes Chateau Musar from other wines is its philosophy and the way in which it is produced. “We let the wine make itself. We don’t add anything to the wine and we are in a country that enables us to do this. The climate in Lebanon is very good,” explains Hochar. Before 1975, only Ksara and Musar existed. Things took a turn when Hochar’s father, Serge, decided to pursue an export strategy targeting the European market. In 1979 armed with his 1967 vintage he took off to the Bristol wine fair of 1979 and caught the eyes of wine enthusiasts, increasing the company’s international exposure. Today Musar is a multi-million dollar wine company producing around 600,000-700,000 different kinds of wines a year in addition to Arak. Its main competitors are Ksara and Chateau Kefraya. However, competition is intensifying as Lebanon produces nearly 7 million bottles per year and new wineries are coming onto the scene like Kassatly Chtaura, Chateau Makse and Chateau Massaya, an estate located in the Bekaa that includes among its owners and consultants the former co-proprietor of Chateau Cheval Blanc and the current co-proprietors of Chateau Angelus and Domaine du Vieux Telegraph As a result, Musar, which gradually turned away from local market in Lebanon during the war, with 97% of its production in 1997 being geared to external market, is now increasing production for the local market. Today the company exports 85% of its production to all of Europe, in addition to the Americas, Canada, the Middle East and Asia. Serge Hochar, the father who took over in the late 1950s, was named in 1984 by the respected wine magazine Decanter the first ever “Wine Man of the Year” for his extraordinary achievements, determination and dedication to producing wines during the difficult years of the Lebanese Civil War. Though the company has been expanding gradually over the past 15 years, and Hochar says the family has entertained the idea of going public or merging, nothing is likely to happen just yet. Much more is at stake for the producers of Lebanon’s most famous winery. ||**||

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