Chateau Musar: wines of epiphany
Chateau Musar requires very little introduction. The winery embodies a prolific talent (and tale) that strikes chords, demands attention and results in lifelong reverence from many.
I first came across Musar while taking my WSET courses in Calgary, and was stunned hearing their story - the family continued making wine amidst extremely dangerous conditions during the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990. It's hard not to garner respect for a family that exemplifies such staunch devotion to their land, resulting in some of the most iconic, compelling wines that in many cases will out live most of us.
When a friend alerted me to a recent Zoom conference with son Marc Hochar of the globally renowned winery, I joined without question. Marc was so humble, kind and endearing, that I knew I had to reach out and request an interview.
LM: Do you have a grasp on what an iconic winery Chateau Musar is? I remember learning about the winery during my studies, and being blown away. Musar really is heralded as one of the greats in the wine industry. How does it feel to be a part of something like this?
MH: When you grow up in a family in Lebanon during the war, you don’t necessarily realize the impact your family’s wines have on people on the other side of the planet. It took me many years to understand that and I was exposed in my 20’s and 30’s to fans of Musar everywhere in the world who had large parts of their cellar devoted to our wines. It really hit home when I started travelling with my father in my 40’s (that is when I joined the family business) and attending tastings with him in the US. I realized how many people wanted to talk to him, the topics he covered and mostly got to hear the stories of people whose lives had been changed by a bottle of Musar. This is when I felt my duty to join the winery was not just a duty towards my family, but also towards the many consumers who had an epiphany with Musar, and to making sure these epiphanies would still happen to others in the future.
LM: Has the wine always been made in an low intervention approach? If so, why? Was there ever a transition from conventional methods or has it always been made in this way?
MH: Our non-interventionist philosophy was really the brainchild of my father Serge: it was his vision of making wines in the most natural way possible and without any additives. He took this decision when he took over from my grandfather in 1959 and never looked back. He was going against the tide of modern wine-making techniques being developed in the 1960’s along when the chemistry of wine was being discovered. Non-intervention means in particular that we have a natural fermentation for our wines and that we do not filter nor fine the wines; this explains why our wines have sediments when they reach 12 to 15 years of age. However, I believe my grandfather did use filtration and fining before 1959, and the best proof is that when I opened a red 1952 last year, it had absolutely no sediments; it drank beautifully, and opened up over several hours after decanting, but had no sediment; a complete shock to me as I had never seen this in our wines (1952 was the first wine I tasted anything from my grandfather’s wine-making times)
LM: What's your opinion on how popular natural wine has become? Do you feel it benefits Musar as a brand, or do you tend to stay away from the noise entirely?
MH: We have always made our wine this way, before the “natural wine” movement started. It was at the core of my father’s belief and we did not mind being “out of fashion” from the 60’s to the 90’s as much as we don’t mind being “in fashion” now. Wine is timeless and as long as you believe in the identity and signature of your wines, there is no reason to change anything. The trend might change again, who knows, but we will still follow the principles that have guided us since the late 50’s. Does the natural wine trend help us in the current environment ? I guess yes, but we don’t get too excited about that: fashion comes and goes, but we are here for the long term.
LM: Can you comment on low intervention wines and the prevalence of perceived flaws - do you come across many wines with faults?
MH: Your question already has its answer, in that it contains the word “perceived”. Perception of flaws is always a personal judgment. If you meet a person with a slightly crooked nose, some might say it is a fault while others might say that it gives him charm or character and personality. In wine, it is the same. Of course we’ve had wines that had permanent flaws and we decided not to release them (1968 for example, or 1992 that we distilled). We’ve had wines that were not ready and needed more time, and we released them after 30 years (1974 and 1984 for example); were they flawed when they were young or did they just need more time ? does every person excel in their career in their first job, or their second or their third ? in their 20’s or in their 50’s ? Time is an essential part of the Musar equation, and flaws might be a very personal perception that might not be shared by the taster next to you. We each have our own perspective. What is most important for us is to make wines that are raw and which express true nature, including its relation with time and cyclicality.
LM: How would you describe the style of Chateau Musar?
MH: Distinctive. There is no style because each vintage is different, and yet they all have a common thread, a signature. If you have the opportunity to taste 5 or 10 consecutive red vintages of Musar red, you will be shocked at how diverse and different they are. And yet, will you recognize a different vintage of Musar if it is served blind a couples of weeks later ? Most probably yes because of this common thread. And our whites our also very unique, being a blend of local varietals that we are the only ones to use; My short answer: our style is more a statement of our wine-making philosophy, and I will leave it to professional tasters to describe the aromas and flavors of the wine itself.
LM: Can you share some wineries you respect? Why?
MH: I appreciate other wineries that have a similar philosophy to ours, i.e. true wines that are kept alive rather than formatted with technology. There are many across the globe, and they have very different flavor profiles to ours. But I enjoy them because they have the ability to live in a glass and evolve, this is what I seek in a wine.
LM: What's been in your glass these days?
MH: I had many Musar reds during the lockdown while doing webinars (2008, 2001 and 1998) and also whites. I also enjoyed some Rose Champagne from Deutz, our house champagne at my home.
LM: What is wine culture like in Lebanon?
MH: It has been around for 6000 years and our Phoenician ancestors were huge contributors to the development of wine, having developed wine-making techniques that they then shared across the Mediterranean at the same time as they sold their wine to the Pharaohs, then Greeks and eventually to what is now Europe. Nowadays, wine culture has made a big comeback in Lebanon and it is becoming again a large part of the highly vibrant food scene in Lebanon, along with our national anise-based arak spirit that is usually enjoyed with typical Lebanese food.
LM: How have you been impacted by COVID? What changes have you needed to make to the business?
MH: We have not had to make any major changes for the moment. Our UK marketing team has had to work from home and we still had orders coming in from online and bricks and mortars retailers mainly; the winery was closed to visitors but still operated at reduced level as the wines need tending to. The big question is how will our markets be impacted post lock down and in particular how quickly will the restaurant business be able to come back to a normal pace. The real reckoning will be the times going forward.
LM: Where do you see the brand of Musar going? How will you adapt and grow?
MH: We have been trying to increase production a little to catch up with increased demand, but global warming and extreme weather conditions have unfortunately not allowed us to do so. We are continuing to plant new vineyards but expansion capacity at the winery is limited by space. As a result, we are increasing slightly our product line of younger wines that are less capacity constrained. As for larger expansion plans, there may be opportunities to expand in Lebanon or abroad, and we will look into them, but these are testing times for the world and for Lebanon in particular, so we won’t rush.
Find out more about Chateau Musar, and follow them on Instagram @chateaumusar.
The photos in this article come from the recently published book Chateau Musar, The Story of a Wine Icon. Marc and the publishers, Académie du Vin Library would love people to read more about Chateau Musar and so are offering you a special saving if you purchase the book in May, use code SILK5 at the checkout.
Here’s the link to buy the book: https://academieduvinlibrary.com/product/musar/