If there’s one winery that has put Lebanon squarely in the eyes of the global wine community, it’s Chateau Musar. Founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar in his family’s 18th century castle in Ghazir, the winery was taken over by Serge Hochar – who made some of the most exceptional wines to come out of the Middle East from grapes grown in the Bekaa Valley, and winning a slew of awards for himself and his wines – until he passed away in 2015.
Today Chateau Musar is headed by Serge’s son, Ralph. We managed to grab hold of Ralph Hochar for an interview to understand more about Chateau Musar, as well as the greater wine industry in the Middle East.
Wine enthusiasts in our part of the world aren’t too familiar with wines that come out of the Middle East. Can you share with us how the wines of Lebanon fit in the global wine market?
[Ralph Hochar] It may surprise you but Lebanon is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world. Vines have been cultivated from Lebanon’s high-altitude Bekaa valley for over 6000 years; but it is also one of the smallest in the world.
Wines from Lebanon represents a very small segment of the overall wine market, producing about 8 million bottles a year. Nevertheless, the appetite for Lebanese wine has increased over the last few years. The wine sector has grown from five producers to 50 in a short period.
Lebanese wines are now exported throughout the world.
Can you tell us more about the terrain and climate of Lebanon, especially in the Bekaa/Beqaa Valley, that facilitates the growing of wine grapes? What kind of wine grapes are grown in the country?
The Bekaa Valley has very rich and fertile soil, and it is no wonder that most of all the agricultural products made in Lebanon are grown in this region.
The centre of the Bekaa Valley is further south than any part of Spain or Italy, and as such, the country enjoys more than 300 days of sunshine per year.
The vineyards of Chateau Musar are located at 1000 meters above sea level, and located on calcareous, gravel and stone soils. Vineyards at this altitude benefit from cool night and seasonal temperatures, allowing the grapes to mature at a slow and healthy pace.
Most of internationally-known red grape varieties are grown in the country, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah, whereas white varieties include Chardonnay, Viognier, Vermentino, and indigenous grape varieties.
Tell us more about the indigenous grapes that grow in the area, such as Obaideh and Merwah. Are you experimenting with any single varietal wines with these grapes?
Chateau Musar White is a unique wine made from ancient Lebanese varieties, Obaideh and Merwah, which are linked respectively to Chardonnay and Semillon. These grapes are among six indigenous grapes that are still cultivated in Lebanon.
The vineyards are located at an altitude of 1300-1500 meters above sea level, on the foothill of Anti-Lebanon mountains, with stony and chalky soils and on the seaward side of Mount Lebanon on gravels.
The vines remain phylloxera-free and are still on their own roots.
Share with us more about the wines you make. Are there any winemaking processes used that are less commonly found in the rest of the world?
In fact, we do not make the wines; they make themselves. We just have to be there to see them grow and make sure that they are behaving correctly.
Our production philosophy is that we intervene as little as possible. Fermentation is natural with the help of the wild yeast found on the skin of the grapes, and takes place in concrete vats, followed by a maceration period which can take up to 3 weeks. The wine is then aged in oak barrels for one year before being blended and bottled, after which it is stored in our cellars for 4 years before it is released on the market.
Where do your wine barriques come from?
Our wine barrels are French oak, from a Bordeaux barrel producer.
It is widely acknowledged that the Lebanese wine industry is largely built on the reputation of Chateau Musar. Tell us how you think that came about.
Chateau Musar was the first winery in Lebanon to acquire international status in 1979 in the UK at the Bristol International Wine Fair where wine journalists hailed Chateau Musar as the main discovery of the fair.
Serge Hochar was also the first recipient of the title of Decanter Man of the Year in 1984.
What do you think poses the biggest challenge to Lebanon’s wine industry? Where do you think are the opportunities?
There are various challenges to Lebanon’s wine industry.
Geopolitical risks remain. With Lebanon’s neighbour Syria, there are still some security concerns in the Bekaa. The war in Syria has affected the economy in Lebanon. The Lebanese wine consumption is still relatively small but the wine market is saturated.
Opportunities lies in the export markets as Lebanese wines are getting increasing traction around the world. Lebanon has a relatively young population who is eager to learn more about wines and will be the future consumers of Lebanese wines once the economy picks up.
Where do you see Chateau Musar in ten years?
The focus at Chateau Musar will remain – to produce wines with a non-interventionist philosophy, as raw and authentic as possible.
The 3rd generation might consider adding new products to the Musar range but always with the mindset of creating wines with character and personality that stand out. This is what our grandfather Gaston started with and we expect to carry on the same philosophy.
Since everything takes a long time to mature at Chateau Musar, we will need time before launching something new but there will be new additions in the future.
Last question – Glenmorangie’s director of distilling and whisky creation Dr. Bill Lumsden, who is a wine geek, once said that he’d love to get his hands on some wine barrels from a “highly regarded winery in the Middle East” which we suspect is Chateau Musar. If Glenmorangie came knocking, would you sell wine barrels to them for the maturing of whisky?
We use our wine barrels for several years and then use them for displays for our customers in Beirut, Lebanon, so sadly no barrels are really available for sale!
The best way to taste Chateau Musar will be at microbrewery restaurant LeVeL33 on Thursday 27 April 2017, when third generation winemaker Ralph Hochar will be on hand to host a six-course wine pairing dinner featuring vintage wines made by his father Serge. You can find out more about the event here.