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One Brilliant Bottle

organic/biodynamic/natural wines in Vinland

Château Musar

Lebanon (Bekaa Valley)

cinsault, carignan, cabernet sauvignon

My Island home is a world away from Lebanon. You’d hardly fathom that a century ago any of its people would have braved the North Atlantic to immigrate here. But indeed so. Considering wine-making in their homeland went back at least 4000 years, they were doubtless disappointed to have come to a place without any cultivation of grapes.

Eventually Château Musar helped ease the pain. The wine is exported to dozens of countries worldwide, so I should not have been surprised to discover two excellent vintages of the red – ’95 and ’99 – on local shelves. I’ve also had the ’94 and the ’98, together with whites and reds from other Lebanese wineries. All on one particularly memorable evening, the dining table flanked by blue-bottled arak and tabbûleh, baba ghannûge, and grilled red pepper. (To say nothing of the impromptu belly-dancing.)

Château Musar 1995 is not a wine for the fastidious. It needs an open mind. Wine Spectator Magazine could only work it up to an 82.

For Château Musar has no intention of fitting the mould of the ubiquitous, pan-American wine. From the first whiff it is marked by candour and independence.

Château Musar 1995

I’d call it old Old World. Wine for wineskins. Brick red against the glass, lightly speckled with sediment. (Because it was too eagerly poured.) Breathe it in too deeply and it stings. The wine is deliciously unfiltered. Natural wine-making with flair, with provocative grace. A touch of brettanomyces, a fading background of acetone. Yes, it works within the depths of wild, dried fruit. A mellowed spiciness, a mouth-rich acidity, and all the time insistent on what it is, with no apologies.  $$

(I feel set to ride a camel. Not thinking there are no camels or deserts in Lebanon.)

Serge Hochar is the most visible of the operatives behind Château Musar. (His father, Gaston Hochar, whose name still appears on the label, founded the winery in 1930.) His brother, Roland, and son, Gaston, play equal parts, but Serge is the philosopher, the vocal front man.

He proclaims the fact that each vintage has its own character, having guided the blending since the 1950s, though he is the first to insist that nature does most of the work.  The vineyards are a thousand metres above sea level in the Bekaa Valley. The winery is in an eighteenth-century castle, 24 kilometres north of Beirut. Château Musar has sometimes found itself in the midst of the country’s civil war. Wine continued to be made while fighting raged around it, the wine cellars on occasion doubling as bomb shelters.

Similar stories pervade the histories of other wineries in Lebanon. We should celebrate the tenacity of the wine-making culture in that part of the world, and toast the uniqueness of what it manages to produce.

“Good wine,” Serge Hochar once told wine-writer Andrew Jefford, “should be dangerously enjoyable. I want to make a wine that troubles me.”

And this: “I once produced a wine that was technically perfect but it lacked the charms of imperfection.”

How refreshing. How restorative.


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