The world of wine has a lot to owe Lebanon and its winemaking history. Intertwined within that is the story of Chateau Musar which this year celebrates its 90th anniversary. Sadly its legendary winemaker, Serge Hochar, is not with us to share and lead the celebrations, but his memory and the history of this unique wine producer is captured in a new book, Chateau Musar, The Story of a Wine Icon, the latest publication from The Académie du Vin Library. Here Marc Hochar and Susan Keevil explain how this new book came about.
The history of Chateau Musar is also very much a reflection and an account of Lebanon’s own turbulent history over the last 90 years. You can buy your own copy of Chateau Musar, The Story of a Wine Icon by clicking here.
Can you explain why you wanted to produce this book and why now?
Many reasons. There would never be a special time to celebrate a winemaker as remarkable as Serge Hochar. His achievements in natural winemaking – obviously a hot topic right now – and overcoming tremendous adversity during the horrors of Lebanon’s civil war, are legendary, and are always to be admired. But 2020 marks Chateau Musar’s 90th birthday, which makes it a great year to launch a book about his incredible wines, and the legacy continued by his family.Also, at the time of a global crisis that we’re all involved with, we can perhaps read this book with more empathy for the Hochars, who have kept their wine alive during times of civil unrest and financial hardship the likes of which we are perhaps only on the edge of understanding – and they continue to do so.
With such a history and background how did you go about bringing the book together?
The Lebanese winemaking tradition goes back 8,000 years in time. Serge Hochar would revel in explaining this to anyone who would listen. He was such a great storyteller that telling the tale of the Phoenicians – the first to cultivate the vine commercially and to trade wine across the Mediterranean – in his words has been easy to do.
He had set ideas about the Greek and Roman invaders too, but as long as they embraced viticulture, it seems he forgave them! The important thing for Serge, and for the Hochars, is the continuous culture of winemaking in a land that seems ‘purpose-built’ for it. Lebanese wine history is therefore at the heart of our book.
Of course, recent history is important too: there’s a year-by-year account of how Chateau Musar survived the civil war (1975–1990) and, given the importance of time and evolution for these amazing wines, there are tasting notes of vintages from 1951 to the winery’s latest release this year (written by Steven Spurrier, Jancis Robinson MW, Michael Broadbent and Bartholomew Broadbent).
How did you research the book and what interviews did you do for it?
Multiple sources. Many of the words from Serge came from a smaller book published by the Hochars in 2014. We also drew from people who knew Serge well – in the UK, the US and the Far East. Our book includes an in-depth interview by the best-selling American author Elizabeth Gilbert originally written for GQ magazine, which gives incredible insight into the ‘ordinary wild person’ he felt he was. And much of the detail comes from a visit to Lebanon in June 2019, to the Beka’a Valley, the winery and cellars at Ghazir, and to the historic temple of Bacchus at Ba’albek.
This was a fantastic opportunity for our photographer, Lucy Pope, to capture the essence of Chateau Musar and the Hochar family with the wines they love.
What did you learn and discover about Serge Hochar and Chateau Musar from producing the book you did not know before?
Sergeisms! Serge would love to talk about the wines he made. They came from a deeper place than many. Wine was more than a job and a family tradition for him, it was his reason for being – he breathed life into his wines, and tried to understand every nuance as they evolved. Not everything Serge said about his winemaking made immediate sense, but his elliptical pronouncements (dubbed ‘Serge-isms’ by friends and family), after a bit of unraveling, often revealed gold-nuggets of information. They were philosophies about life as well as wine.
Chateau Musar’s white wine also turned out to be a bit of a revelation. It’s made from Lebanon’s own Obaideh and Merwah grapes (the Hochars are the only ones to blend the two together) and its complexity is incredible. You can read all about it in the book– and there’s a good selection of Serge-isms to decipher too…
How would you describe his influence on Lebanese winemaking but also around the world?
Serge Hochar’s skills as a winemaker were legendary, and he crafted wines under the most difficult wartime conditions imaginable (bullets and bombs pelting his Beirut office, roadblocks and rockets making the roads he travelled impassable). So he became an inspiration for anyone striving to achieve what they want to achieve under near-impossible circumstances. In 1984, in praise of his heroic winemaking, he became Decanter magazine’s very first ‘Man of the Year’, which brought him global fame and much admiration.
What do you see as his legacy now and into the future?
Serge’s message through Chateau Musar was always the same. He’d say: “My wines are natural. I am the one who makes them, but I do not interfere with nature. Taste them and listen to them and you will see!”
Serge lights the way forward for natural winemaking, and for wines of incredible complex longevity that result. For example, read our tasting notes to see how a 30 or 40-year old Chateau Musar can evolve with time in the bottle.
Who do you hope will read the book and find it most useful?
‘Chateau Musar, The Story of a Wine Icon’ is the perfect read for those who want to learn more about Serge Hochar and his incredible wine – the history behind it, the story of the Hochar family, the terroir from which it comes, and the natural winemaking that brings it to life. We’re sure it will fascinate anyone who is interested in wine in general or in Chateau Musar in particular, from first-time tasters to experienced merchants and sommeliers who want to pass on the story of this unique wine.
How do you see the overall Lebanese wine industry now and Chateau Musar’s position in it?
For the last decades, Chateau Musar has been a trailblazer for wines from the Middle East and from Lebanon in particular. It will probably continue to set the benchmark for the area with a very unique signature for its wines; and flurry of new wineries will now be looking to set their own mark with differentiated styles and blends.
- You can buy your own copy of Chateau Musar, The Story of a Wine Icon by clicking here. The price is £30. It is the latest book from The Academie du Vin Library that was set up last year to help provide a new platform to publish serious wine books like this as as well bring back to life old titles that have fallen out of print. You can see what other titles it has, including Fiona Morrison MW’s 10 Great Wine Families, and Ben Howkins’ book on Sherry by clicking here.