Unless you’re a wine connoisseur, you may not realise that Lebanon produces some world class wines, that rival the best of Bordeaux. On my recent trip to Lebanon I was lucky enough to join a visit to the Chateau Musar winery which has a world-renowned reputation in winemaking.
We met with Gaston Hochar, grandson of his namesake who founded the winery in the 1930s, and top winemaker Tarek Sakr, who trained with some of the best chateaux in Bordeaux. They are both passionate about their wines and the talk was about how, at Chateau Musar they try to make outstanding wines in as natural a way as possible. Tarek told me how the warm dry climate of the Bekaa valley provides near perfect conditions for growing high quality, fully matured grapes which provide the best raw materials for making great wines. Two years ago the winery received organic certification for their grapes and the wines are also made on organic principles, using none of the treatments and pesticides that are typically used in non-organic vineyards. We joked that such naturally produced wine must be one that you can drink without any hangover, but they assured me that a bad headache from a wine is usually due to the over-zealous use of sulphur on the grapes, to prevent oxidisation.
Since the 1980s Chateau Musar have had an office in London, which acts as their distribution centre in Europe. They now make 3 different ranges; the premier line Chateau Musar wines, are made from cabernet-sauvignon, caringnan and cinsault grapes, are full-bodied and aged in oak, being released after 7 years. The second range of Hochar Père et Fils is made with the same philosophy, being aged in oak and is released after 2 years, while the Cuvée Musar is a light and fruity wine designed to be drunk everyday. For the European market, the Cuvée Musar range is released under the brand of Musar Jeune and has been given a trendy, new label.
Gaston Hochar explained that the Musar wines have a distinctive taste; ‘Once you’ve tasted our wine you can recognise it anywhere’, he said.
‘Now we’ve been here, we won’t want to drink anything else’, we joked, but Gaston insisted, ‘No – you must try others, then you can come back to Musar and understand what makes it special’
For one wine magazine, he told us how the Hochar family was featured in the Christmas issue, pictured enjoying their Christmas lunch, Lebanese style. The only problem was that to allow for the magazine lead times, the lunch had to be photographed in July, one of the hottest times of the year. At least the children were happy, as they all had presents under the Christmas tree, which was brought out of storage for the occasion.
The conversation moved on to the number of journalists who had been hosted at Chateau Musar, including recently English celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, who featured the foods and wines of Lebanon in his new food magazine. ‘The trouble with journalists’, confided Gaston, ‘is that they always want to bring in the war’. I had realised by now that the Lebanese don’t like to dwell on such matters, prefering to put their political troubles behind them, enjoy the present and look to the future.
But later Tarek told us how, in the 2006 June War with Israel, they flew the Chateau Musar Flag on the trucks bringing their grapes to the winery, in the hope that the war planes would be able to distinguish them from military vehicles. He felt that the reputation of the winery rested on being able to produce great wines in good times and bad.
On my return to the UK, I found, to my delight, that the Chateau Musar wines were stocked in my local branch of Majestic Wines and stocked up on a case to drink on special occasions. The wine merchant assured me that the Lebanese reds of this quality were the equivalent to a top Bordeaux wine of twice the price, and were going down a storm in France, where they couldn’t get enough of them. So better get your hands on some to enjoy with your friends before the whole world catches on.
Chateau Musar are happy to welcome visitors for a tour of the winery and tasting, by appointment. The winery is a 45 minute drive north of Beirut, in the hills above Jounieh. To find out where Chateau Musar wines are stocked in your country, you can e-mail Chateau Musar via their website contacts page.