Château Musar—the world’s best wine
There is no such thing as “the world’s most beautiful woman.” But if there were, she would certainly be the incomparable Naomi Campbell. Likewise, to declare a “world’s best wine” would be shamelessly subjective; but if a wine were so lauded, Château Musar would undoubtedly be the one.
According to the foremost experts, connoisseurs, and purveyors of fine wine, Château Musar is arguably the world’s greatest wine. And it has a cult-like following—in a notoriously trendy industry—to prove it. Experiencing the wine can be so moving, so profound, that people first introduced to it have been known to shed tears. And since each bottle is subtly unique—even within a single vintage—tears have been known to beget tears with the opening of each subsequent bottle. That is because to taste the wine is to awaken dormant memories—some happy, some sad, some beautiful, some painful—of life itself: a late-afternoon walk in an enchanted forest to gather mushrooms with Grandfather; sitting, disillusioned, on a cliff overlooking a tumultuous sea; the intimate scent of a one-night lover; parched soil at the moment it is moistened by a shower of rain; a kitchen table piled high with baskets of fresh game, ripe fruits, herbs and spices, and vegetables in preparation for a scrumptious feast. “Aroma,” more so than “bouquet,” would more aptly describe the wine’s fragrance, for it resonates more as “savory” than “fruity” or “floral.”
Surprisingly, Château Musar does not hail from one of the venerated vineyards of one of the esteemed wine regions of one of the world’s great wine-producing countries such as Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Chile. Instead, Château Musar is from the Levant, the Biblical land of Cannan—specifically from the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, albeit a valley that has been home to vineyards for over 2,000 years and wine-drinking peoples for seven millennia. But not surprisingly, like the great luxuries and mysteries of the fabled East of yore, Château Musar—since 1979, but especially since 2000—has taken the West by storm.
History of Château Musar
In 1929, after studying medicine for one year in Bordeaux, France, Gaston Hochar (1910-1972), the scion of bankers and traders, realized—to the initial dismay of his father—that wine, not blood, was his passion. So, upon returning to his ancestral Lebanese homeland, where it is believed the Hochar family (pronounced “Ho-shar”) has lived for some 800 years, he entered the wine business in 1930, which at the time in Lebanon was an avocation for farmers, not a vocation for the bourgeoisie. But because Gaston possessed a penchant for things elegant, he set out to transform Lebanese winemaking into a thing sublime: He, for example, became the first Lebanese to market his wine in bottles rather than in casks. Soon, he become the sole official supplier of wine to the French officers’ mess across the Levant. (The French army had been posted in the region since World War I.)
In 1930, Gaston Hochar established the Château Musar winery (www.chateaumusar.com ) in Ghazir, Lebanon, 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of the capital city of Beirut, where it is said the Hochars have lived for 200 years. The vineyard, however, was situated in the sunny (300 days per annum), fertile, Bekaa Valley—known in Classical antiquity as Coele-Syria—at 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) above sea level, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Beirut. Bekaa Valley, Lebanon’s most important agricultural region, is located between Mount Lebanon to the west and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains (the mountain range that forms most of the border between Syria and Lebanon) to the east. Seventy-five miles long and ten miles wide on average, the region boasts a Mediterranean climate of wet, oftentimes-snowy winters and dry, warm summers. The region also boasts a terroir perfect for viticulture. Gaston, it is said, allowed terroir—even if in conflict-prone mountains—to dictate the location of his 180-hectare vineyard. But when it came to the situ for his winery, he insisted upon land securely within his ancestral homeland of Lebanon.
The name “Musar” derives from a 400-year-old castle-turned-convent called “Mzar,” where the winery was first housed. Gaston changed “Mzar” to “Musar,” a name that he thought would be easier to pronounce in both his native Lebanese and abroad. The winery’s first vintage came in 1933.
[ Upon his death in 1972, Gaston Hochar passed the winery on to his two sons: eccentric, creative Serge (1939-2014); and conservative, methodical Ronald. In 1959, Serge, while completing his winemaking studies at the University of Oenology in Bordeaux, becomes Château Musar’s winemaker (though, on account of his demonstrated gift at viniculture, he had begun overseeing the company’s wine production from 1954 at the tender age of 15), while Ronald in 1962 begins heading up the company’s marketing and finance departments, thereafter, in 2015, becoming the company’s chairman. Today, Ronald’s son Ralph leads the company’s social media activity as well as sales and marketing for France and Southern Asia. ]
For almost 50 years, Château Musar enjoyed a relatively provincial existence, selling most of its product domestically. Under the stewardship of brothers Serge and Ronald, however, the company began its foray into international marketing—promoting at trade shows, entering international tastings, forging relationships with foreign chefs and restaurants, etc. But Château Musar’s proverbial “big break” came in 1979 when, at the Bristol Wine Fair, Christie’s wine auctioneer extraordinaire Michael Broadbent and esteemed journalist Roger Voss selected a 1967 Château Musar Red as the “discovery of the Fair.” And the rest, as it is said, is history. And, in many ways, it is the company’s decision to market its wine internationally that ensured it survival.
From 1975 to 1990, Lebanon was gripped by a religious-political civil war that pitted the country’s Christian, Jewish, and Muslim populations against each other, the conflict further complicated by interventions and shifting allegiances from Syria and Israel. By the time the war finally came to an end, Lebanon’s pre-war population of three million people had witnessed a death toll of 120,000; one million people had migrated; and 76,000 were displaced, most permanently. The war had a devastating effect on life in Lebanon, its wine industry one of the many casualties as Lebanese people—people with an ancient winemaking tradition—stopped drinking even locally produced wine on account of the abject hardship that took center stage in the theater of war. Most Lebanese wine producers simply ceased operations.
But bon vivants have a way of making sure that life remains beautiful—regardless. And Serge Hochar was the quintessential bon vivant. As such, amidst years of bombings, blockades, and invasions, Château Musar not only survived, it thrived. During those war-torn years, only 1976—the year after the war began—saw no wine production: The precious grapes were left to wither away on the vines. And the mysterious 1984 vintage, made from grapes harvested one month late because of the war and pressed five days after harvest (instead of immediately after the typically three-hour drive from the vineyard to the winery), was not offered at market seven years after the harvest, but was instead uneventfully cellared, where it quietly aged into a remarkable wine that was, according to March Hochar, Serge’s son, finally released to the market 30 years later in 2014. (Only two truckloads, representing ten percent of the harvest, were allowed past the checkpoints on the road to Damascus—the road connecting the vineyard and the winery.)
Serge Hochar was convinced that it was fate that allowed Château Musar to emerge relatively unscathed from those trying times: No employees died at the hands of the war; the winery was able to ship its wine to its international markets whenever roads, airports, and ports were operational; and the winery’s bunker-like, 5-story-deep cellars—located in the Christian heartland and containing enough inventory accumulated before and during the war to see the company through a 20-year war—was only slightly disturbed.
Thus, it was Château Musar founder Gaston Hochar’s elegant (but also fortuitous) decision in 1930 to bottle his wine—which served to later facilitate the international marketing of it—that would enable his winery, 45 years later, to weather the woes of war. So, on that fateful day in 1979 when Château Musar was declared the stand-out wine of the Bristol Wine Fair, the winery had long been poised for the celebrity and prosperity that would ensue.
Privileged to a six-month-long fermentation process in cement vats; aged for one year in barrels made of French oak from the forest of Nevers; expertly blended before being returned to cement vats for an additional year; then, three years after harvest, bottled then bottle-aged for four years before its release—seven years in the making—onto the market, Château Musar Red is the winery’s eponymous protagonist, its “primo vino,” its “ne plus ultra.” And it is upon Château Musar Red that the winery’s fame, fortune, and international reputation rest. By 2000, the wine had begun its rise to fame in the United States. Celebrated New York restaurant Terroir Tribeca has a designated section named “All Hail the Almighty Château Musar.” Château Musar’s various wines—Château Musar [red, white, and rosé], Hochar Père Et Fils [red], and Musar Jeune [red, white, and rosé]—are today exported to over 55 countries around the world, so much so that when Serge Hochar suffered an untimely death in December of 2014, he was mourned by practically every significant wine publication. And at a retail price of about $55 for the winery’s top-of-the-range Château Musar, the wine is considered one of the best-priced exquisite wines in the world.
Yes, the Broadbent-Voss declaration at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1979 did open the door to Château Musar’s international success as a winery. But at the end of the day, the wine had to speak for itself. And it is Serge Hochar’s philosophy of winemaking and commitment to producing authentic Lebanese wine with minimal human intervention that has ensured Château Musar’s success for the better part of a century. Today, Château Musar is a source of Lebanese pride, a national icon. What Chanel or Dior is for France, Château Musar is for Lebanon.
By 1954—while in his mid-teenage years—Serge Hochar had already established himself as a child prodigy of winemaking, his father allowing him to serve as principal blender of that year’s Château Musar White. Then two years later, in 1956, Serge blended the winery’s Château Musar Red. In those days, under the leadership of Serge’s father Gaston, the winery’s winemaking methodology reflected that of the day, every effort being made to introduce science, technology, order, and standardization to the process. But when artsy Serge assumed full leadership of Château Musar’s winemaking in 1959 at age 20, he began implementing a philosophy that was decidedly natural and non-interventionalist—à la laissez faire wine. And by the 1960s, the winery was on the path of distinguishing itself as a producer of living, evolving, bottle-unique wines: Red wines are fermented in cement or cement-lined vats, regarded as the most neutral material during the formative stages of wine; only the winery’s white wines—in order to achieve the desired clarity—are fined; wines are filtered only for the purpose of removing obviously extraneous materials; oak barrels are comprised of only 10% new wood since the winery’s mission is to produce wine that tastes like wine, not like wood; minimal amounts of sulfites are added only so as to ensure the stability of the wines while in transit; etc. The result is wine that is an authentic, nuanced, unadulterated expression of lands and hands that give it rise.
Precisely why Château Musar (red, white, and rosé), unlike most other unfortified wines, endures for decades—improving all along—is unknown. Grapes, it is said, are exceedingly impressionable fruits, the wine they produce influenced by things big and small, tangible and intangible. Perhaps, then, the Hochar family’s will to produce a living wine amidst the death of civil war has helped to imbue the grapes, and thus the wine, with tenacity and longevity. Likewise, the rocky soil of the villages of Aana and Kefraya, home to the vines of Château Musar, engenders a deep-rooted desire to survive, collaterally imparting character to the grapes and the wine they yield. Though time has not yet revealed when Château Musar is at its optimum, experts recommend that the wine (red and white) be drunk after 15 years, at which point it begins demonstrating its potential for the evolution of secondary and tertiary notes. While no bottles of the inaugural 1933 vintage exist, bottles from several pre-Serge Hochar vintages have been preserved within the cool, dark recesses of the winery’s cellar. “I tasted a red 1952 last Christmas , and although it was produced by my grandfather [Gaston] with a different approach (i.e., he did fine and filter the wines at the time) to my father’s [Serge] noninterventionist philosophy, the wine was very lively, complex and continued opening up for 3 hours after decanting,” said Marc Hochar, head of marketing and sales. It is believed that the initial oak-aging acclimates the wine to minimal exposure to oxygen. And after about 50 years, bottles are reconditioned and outfitted with new corks, thereby preparing the vintages for additional decades of aging. But such methods are not singular to Château Musar. So, for the time being, the lifespans of Château Musar Red, White, and Rosé remain a delicious mystery. Since the 1960s, however, it is the company’s policy to sell only wines produced pursuant to Serge Hochar’s noninterventionist methods, beginning with the Château Musar White of 1954 and the Château Musar Red of 1956.
Château Musar Red
Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, and Cinsault are blended to make what is oftentimes declared the “world’s best wine.” According to Gaston Hochar, managing-director of Château Musar and grandson of his namesake founder of the company, the Cabernet Sauvignon gives the wine its structure, while Carignan provides body, with the Cinsault imparting elegance and finesse. The wine is blended to reflect the overall character of the particular vintage. In its youth, Château Musar Red is dense and richly textured with indications of baked and dried fruits. As the wine ages, however, it acquires tawny hues subtler notes. The company still proudly offers Château Musar Reds from the 1950s. Because the wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered, it should be allowed to stand upright for 24 hours before serving, thereby allowing the naturally occurring sediment to settle. Decanting is recommended. The wine should be allowed to breathe for several hours before being served at 18°C. Château Musar Red is beautifully paired with lamb, game, roasts, and mature cheeses.
Château Musar White
Two ancient, indigenous, Lebanese white grapes unite to create Château Musar White: Obaideh, from the chalky, stony soil of the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains; and Merwah, from the calcareous gravels of the seaward side of Mount Lebanon. Seven years in the making—after fermenting in French oak barrels for nine months before being blended and bottled at the end of the first year, then bottle-aged for six years before release onto the market—the wine is in its youth yellow-gold in hue, mildly oaky, and rich and creamy in texture, though dry. As the precious liquid ages in the company’s cellars at Ghazir, it attains tawny hues and mellow, spicy notes. Like its red counterpart, Château Musar White ages beautifully for decades, the company proudly offering bottles dating as far back as 1954. This complex wine, sometimes compared to dry Sauternes or mature white Graves, is best served after breathing for several hours. Decanting is recommended. Best if presented “cellar-cool” (around 15°C), Château Musar White makes for an exquisite complement for foie gras, pâtés, seafood dishes, and spicy foods.
Château Musar Rosé
Since specific grape qualities are required so as to ensure an elegant combination of the varietals, Château Musar Rosé is not made every year. When made, however, at its foundation are the two native Lebanese white grapes—Merwah and Obaideh—the origins of which go back 5,000 years to the era of the Phoenicians, and the Cinsault red grape. The grapes are pressed together, the juice fermented and aged for six to nine months in barrels of French oak. The wine is bottled a year after harvest and released onto the market two years later. Château Musar Rosé is a still, softly oaked tribute to the “blended” rosés of Champagne, a style much admired by Serge Hochar. In its youth, Château Musar Rosé is a gentle salmon-pink in color, with a smooth, balanced, velvety texture. Its refreshing aroma and flavor suggests of citrus, almonds, wild herbs, and peaches. As the wine ages, it takes on a tawny hue, with hints of spice. Château Musar Rosé should be allowed to breathe for several hours before serving at cellar temperature (around 15°C). The wine pairs perfectly with seafood, Provençal dishes, nuts, and olives.
In a dozen years—in 2030—Château Musar will celebrate its centennial year, the company’s iconic status predictably intact. And it is likely that the “formula” finalized by Serge Hochar in 1977 for making Château Musar Red, the wine that has come to be called “the world’s best wine,” will still guide Hochar family winemakers—now in their fourth generation—in the making of the quintessential Lebanese wine that elevated not only the winemaking of the Levant, but of the world.