Beyond the Bekaa Valley

Over the past 30 years Lebanese wine has gradually made a name for itself on the international market. Here, Massoud A. Derhally looks at one of the leading producers of wine in the country, Château Musar
Beyond the Bekaa Valley
By Staff writer
Sat 30 Sep 2006 08:00 PM

The leading producer of wine in Lebanon, Château Musar, is by far the best known internationally.

Thirty years ago however, Musar was one of those well-kept secrets that connoisseurs knew of.

But if that was the case 30 years ago, it certainly is not today. In Europe and America Château Musar is renowned for producing complex and distinctive wines.

The winery’s tale started three quarters of a century ago and has put Musar in the same league as 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] began making the wine in 1959. It has been like 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 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 and I joined more than 10 years ago,” says Hochar, who was once a software engineer.

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 more than 10 years; learning about wine, how it tastes, all the little details that make the reputation of Château Musar,” says Hochar.

Hochar’s grandfather started the business, which has its vineyards in the Bekaa Valley, 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, and there was potential for the wine,” says Hochar, adding, “He was the first to put wine in bottles in Lebanon. It was put in jars before that.”

But the company and the techniques employed in the making of Musar changed with every new generation. “When my father joined the business he changed some things. He went to Bordeaux and when he came back he applied what he had learned, following a certain philosophy after doing a lot of research,” says Hochar.

“But 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.”

The vineyard today produces three red wines, a white, a rosé and the colourless anise-flavoured liqueur, Arak. Of the batch, the red Château Musar, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and Carignan, with Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, is the grand vin.

The red Château 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.

“The 1983 for example, 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 is much lighter and is bottled at the end of the harvest year and released after six months to a year, making it easier to drink.

The winery also produced a white Château Musar 1998, which is a blend of two local grape varieties, Obeideh and Merwah, varieties that go back 4000 to 5000 years. 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 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, 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 changes gradually,” he adds.

So what is the maximum one should wait to drink a wine? There is no maxim. “We don’t have a limit, but we consider that our Château Musar shouldn’t be drunk before 12 to 15 years depending on the vintage. But they could be drunk before.”

What distinguishes Château Musar from other wines however, 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.

Things took a turn for the chateau though in 1979, when Hochar’s father, Serge, decided to pursue an export strategy targeting the European market. Armed with his 1967 vintage he went to the Bristol wine fair and caught the eyes of wine enthusiasts, increasing the company ’s international exposure.

Today, Musar produces around 600,000-700,000 bottles of wines a year, in addition to Arak. However, competition is intensifying as Lebanon produces nearly 7 million bottles per year with new wineries coming onto the scene like Kassatly Chtaura, Château Makse and Château Massaya.

As a result, Musar, which gradually turned away from the local market in Lebanon, with 97% of its production in 1997 being geared to external markets, is now increasing production for the local market. Today, the company exports 85% of its production to Europe, in addition to the Americas, Canada and Asia.

Though the company has been expanding gradually over the past 15 years, Hochar says the family has entertained the idea of going public but nothing is likely to happen just yet.

"With wine every year is different, you have to adapt yourself to nature, and this is both difficult and interesting"

• Châateau Musar; red, white and rose

• Hochar Père et Fils; red, white

and rose

• Cuvée Musar; red, white and rose

• Musar Jeune; red

• Rubis; red

• L’Arak de Musar

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