Understanding Chateau Musar takes more than a sip or a glassful, however fascinating the taste of that wine might prove to be. To know Chateau Musar takes an understanding of terroir, of natural winemaking, of human nature and of history. All of these factors have a powerful influence over the way our wine appears in the glass – how it tastes, smells, lives, breathes and changes.
The story of Musar’s survival during the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990 is well documented. It was a formative time for their wine and for its creator, Serge Hochar, who was only just beginning to trust his grapes (as he famously said) to ‘become what they wanted to be’. From 1975, he had no choice. They were harvested when the shelling paused; their transit to the winery took as long as avoiding militia check-points permitted (sometimes days), and winemaking could only happen when the coast road was clear and Serge could reach the winery.
The wine he made during this time had to find its own way past the delays and disruption caused by war, and miraculously it did so. Serge called his 1982 ‘a pure wine of war’. Eighty hectares of Hochar vineyards in the Bekaa Valley became the frontline for Israeli and Syrian tanks, the grapes only harvested by chance when a break in fighting allowed the loyal Bedouin grape-pickers to dash in and collect what they could. And yet the wine was to become an elegant, mellow red full of soft fruits and pomegranate charm – Andrew Jefford called it ‘typically Musar in its enigmatic simplicity/complexity’.
And yet the war is only a tiny part of the history that makes the wines what they are. Their Lebanese heritage, charted right the way back to Phoenician times over 4,000 years ago, has had a dramatic influence on the way the vine is grown in the land. The Phoenicians were the first to cultivate the vine professionally and to trade wine internationally; they then taught the Greeks their oenological skills, and earned the admiration of the Romans for their links to market.
Of all the history that influences them, it is the Roman temple at Ba’albek that paved their way with the most authority. As Serge said: ‘This is the only serious temple erected to Bacchus [the god of wine] anywhere in the Roman world. And they put it here, in the Bekaa. Why? Because the Romans and Greeks, the Phoenicians and Minoans, and all peoples who came before them, all knew that the Bekaa is the spiritual home of wine.’
It is Serge’s trust for his wines, rooted in history and Lebanese terroir, that has led them to light the way for the natural wine movement. He would 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 enjoyed explaining this ‘No Touch Policy’ to anyone who would listen, and would eagerly show the incredible wines – both red and white – of complex longevity that were the result. He loved to travel, and it didn’t take him long to develop a worldwide support club for Chateau Musar, with followers eager every year to find out what his new vintage would bring.
That Chateau Musar's wines are shaped by time is as clear today as it ever was. Take a look at the tasting notes for 15, 20 or 30-year old Chateau Musar and you will begin to understand the elegance that it develops as it evolves in bottle. This evolution is a vitally important part of Serge’s winemaking legacy, a part that they are determined to continue.