In the 30 years following Serge Hochar’s decoration as Decanter magazine’s 'Man of the Year' in 1984, his wine became legendary. Unlike other high-status wines in this style (Right Bank Bordeaux or Côte d’Or burgundy, for example), there was no fabulous inherited property from which Musar could draw fame, no legacy of extraordinary wines with a triumphant set of awards and a centuries-old story to tell. Yes, Musar had an ancient terroir with a multi-millennia grape-growing performance record on which to plant its vineyards. But the winery’s history began in 1930, only 90 years ago; in wine terms, it is a comparative baby. And yet the legacy carried forward by the Hochar family is great...
The Chateau Musar winery is situated on Lebanon's Mediterranean coastline in the peaceful Silk Road village of Ghazir. It is the essential 100 kilometre journey from its fertile Beka'a Valley vineyards to the winery that is integral to the story of Chateau Musar. Whichever way you look at it, it is this journey that has given Musar wines their extraordinary identity. It has involved danger, bravery and stalwart determination in times of war. In more recent peaceful times, it has required patience and forbearance. But without this transfer from war zone to coastal safe haven it is unlikely that the red or the white wines would exist today in the way they do.
The man who discovered the Ghazir-Beka’a formula, who had the inspiration to start it all in the first place, making wine from a string of villages in the Beka’a and transporting the grapes to the safety of the coast, was Gaston Hochar, Serge’s father and founder of the winery. Gaston was a visionary. As a young man, he went to study medicine in Paris, and while he was there fell in love with wine. In 1930 Gaston made the decision to return to Lebanon after his studies in France and begin a brand new venture making wine the way the French did. As it turned out, Gaston had a ready market for his new wine. Lebanon was still occupied by the French army, instilled to govern the country after World War I. The French army bought the majority of the winery’s production each year to be consumed by the army’s officer cadre throughout the Levant.
Serge, Gaston’s first son, was born in 1939, and his brother Ronald arrived in 1944. Serge and Ronald were regular visitors to the winery in Ghazir during their childhood, where they were encouraged to lend a hand, taste the wines and enjoy the buzz of the winemaking process. Serge eventually decided to study winemaking at the University of Bordeaux under the tutelage of renowned professors Emile Peynaud and Jean Riberau-Gayon. He graduated in 1964, having taken an internship at Château Langoa-Barton.
By 1959 (even before he had graduated from wine school) Serge had developed enough confidence to take over the winemaking at Ghazir from his father. The Hochars quickly realised that if Serge were to follow his father in the business, his creative but tempestuous nature would need the steadying influence of his rational younger brother Ronald alongside. From 1964 to 1970, Serge’s wines were influenced by his teachings from Bordeaux, where he favoured the Saint-Julien appellation. After this time, he gradually shed his Bordeaux influence, and steadily developed the distinctive Lebanese product he would come to believe in so passionately.
But the two brothers were being tested. The French army had left Lebanon in 1946 and Serge and Ronald were having to reach further and further into their own country for sales. With the onset of war in 1975, tourism and the trade that came with it dried up completely, and many Lebanese people moved away. For the first time, the Musar team was forced to find new markets outside their country. The wines of Chateau Musar became better known abroad than they were in Lebanon, Serge earning himself a reputation not only for being a maker of beautiful, intriguing wines, but as a purveyor of elliptical measures of wine wisdom, or ‘Serge-isms’.
All would have gone smoothly but for the shelling in the Beka’a Valley. Willing customers were one thing, but with the increasing damage caused by the war, there would be no wines to offer them. Musar was potentially in trouble. At home, through the battles, bombings and all-too-nearby skirmishes of the 1980s, Serge put in the most heroic vintages of his life, sur-mounting terrible odds to get his wines from the battle zone to comparative safety at the winery in Ghazir. His success under duress was rewarded by his commendation as Decanter magazine’s first ‘Man of the Year’, a tribute that confirmed him as one of the wine world’s most respected statesmen and set his wines on course for global acclaim.
Following Serge's tragic death in 2014 in a swimming accident off the coast of Mexico, Ronald Hochar took over the reigns at Chateau Musar. Heading up a close-knit team of Serge’s sons, Gaston and Marc, his own son, Ralph, and viticulturalist and winemaker (Serge’s ‘spiritual third son’) Tarek Sakr. In the story of Musar’s wines, their heritage and future that follows, each member of the team has his own contribution to make. In the words of the late Michael Broadbent, "Serge Hochar put the wines of Lebanon on the map. It is wonderful to note that the family is keeping them there."
[All extracts from 'Chateau Musar: The Story of a Wine Icon' have been published online with the kind permission of the Académie du Vin Library. For the full story, click here to buy the book with our exclusive promotional offer.]
Image credits: © Lucy Pope