Before Greeks and Egyptians knew about wine, Phoenicians, the ancient dwellers of Lebanon, were tending vineyards, making wine and trading as far away as today’s Jerez, and possibly even founded as the port of Cadiz in Spain.
Most North American wine enthusiasts hardly ever consider Lebanese wines, but they should seriously reconsider. Lebanon produces some very fine red and white wines.
The size of Wales, the country measures 170 Kms. from north to south, and 50 Kms. from the Mediterranean Sea to the Syrian border in the east. Lebanon is almost divided into east and west by the Lebanon Mountains that run from north to south. Although the country is considered to be hot, the Bekaa Valley with an average altitude of 1000 metres and mountain ranges on either side provide cool nights and enough rainfall respectively. Consequently grapes rarely ripen before mid-September, considerably later than some Mediterranean French vineyards in Languedoc and Roussillon. This valley’s soils are argilo-calcaire and highly suitable for grape growing.
Minimal chemical treatments are required, since the summers are hot and dry, with breezes blowing from the Mediterranean Sea. Most vines still sprawl in vigorous bush form.
The population of this small country, once called the “Switzerland of the Middle East“ consists of Christians, Muslims and Druzes. While Islam prevents its followers from consuming alcohol, Christians and Druzes who control the trade and skilled professions make up for the loss.
Lebanese favour arrak (a distillate of wine and anis) and beer. Wine consumption was encouraged by the French administration that ruled the country until 1945.
Presently some 30,000 hectares of vineyards exist, but approximately 90 per cent are devoted to table grapes and base wine for arrak distillation.
The favourite grapes of growers and wineries are cinsaut, carignan, cabernet sauvignon, syrah for reds, and for whites merwah, (similar to Semillon), bibline and obediah (some consider it to taste close to Chardonnay). Although wine production is small mostly Chateau Musar and a few other small wineries export some 90 per cent of what is produced.
Chateau Musar was founded by Gaston Hochar in 1930, who had already a very successful real estate development company building luxury homes for the rich and wealthy, but decided to open a winery with the objective to producing outstanding Lebanese wines. Considering the fact that then very few Lebanese knew about wine and fewer still could afford enjoying, the decision was bold. He purchased an 18th century castle called Mzar in the outskirts of Beirut and renamed it Chateau Musar. Deep cellars were dug to provide for long cellaring.
Today, Chateau Musar continues to produce fine wines under the management of brothers Serge and Roland, the former of whom markets, while the latter makes the wine. But as everything else in the Middle East roles are never clearly defined, sometimes Serge makes blending decisions and on occasion Roland will get involved in marketing. Other family members involved in the management of the winery make the day-to-day decisions. Hochar Sr. was greatly influenced by Ronald Barton during an extended stay at the Chateau Langoa Barton
(Bordeaux) in 1959. After his stay he introduced cabernet sauvignon in his vineyards, bunch selection before pressing, destemming and barrel aging were other innovations that made their way to Chateau Musar, all of which contributed immensely to the quality and aging potential of Chateau Musar wines.
Today, the winery owns 22 hectares of vineyards around the towns of Ana, Anniq and Jefraya. The diversity of soils, from rich to rocky, along with vintage variations cause complications which require the sort of juggling act at which Serge and Roland are supreme performers. The rest of the fruit comes from long-time contract growers. Yields are kept low (about 25 hectolitres/hectare) in an attempt to achieve flavour concentration, a hallmark of Chateau Musar. The reds of the chateau sometimes resemble a fine Medoc, sometimes a powerful Chateauneuf-Du-Pape and at other times sophisticated blends with a flavour all of their own reflecting the terroir and the blending skills of the Hochar brothers.
Generally hot climate wines age poorly. Chateau Musar wines age extremely well, mainly because of the location of their vineyards, also because of the care taken before and during pressing (only membrane presses are used) aging in the deep cellars of the winery and judicious blending.
exports close to 90 per cent of its wines to the U.K., the U.S.A, Sweden, France and Canada.
Recently some of the Chateau Musar wines were tasted in Toronto resulting in rave reviews:
Chateau Musar White 1990: blended from obedieh and merwah grapes exuding an intensity and complexity one rarely expects from 10 year old white wines resembling a rich and opulent southern Cotes du Rhone white. An excellent wine to pair with rich Lebanese “ meze ” (i.e. Marinated black and green olives, feta cheese slices, grey mullet roe with olive oil, lemon juice, bread and spices, a.k.a tarama salata, stuffed grape leaves, stuffed eggplants, sliced hard cheeses resembling Gruyere, Parmesan and Asiago) and Lebanese flat bread.
Chateau Musar white 1992 aged for nine months only due to the lightness of vintage, this wine exudes melon aromas, possesses a medium body with a clean and pleasant aftertaste. Pair confidently with fried Mediterranean fish famous for their intense taste. Pan-fried tuna with tomatoes, green and red peppers enriched with extra-virgin olive oil would be an excellent match too.
Chateau Musar white 1995 Pale golden yellow, aromas of dried herbs, lemon peel and vanilla, with youthful citrusy, honeyed taste. A very long and clean finish. An excellent wine to pair with smoked salmon, poached cold salmon with basil- flavoured mayonnaise, fried smelts, and baked mackerel.
Chateau Musar red 1994 composed of cabernet sauvignon, carignan, cinsault, it has a dark cherry colour, leather aromas, concentrated, finely balanced with cherry and chocolate undertones and fine finish. A smooth powerful wine with a refined taste.
Chateau Musar 1993 cedar aromas, complex layers of berries (mulberries, blackberries and redcurrants), cherries and pleasant spiciness provide excitement. Well balanced with a long and satisfying finish.
Chateau Musar red 1991 harvested from September 16 to October 2 in warm sunny weather. This wine possesses a dark ruby colour and chocolaty, leathery and “barnyardy “ aromas followed by a smooth texture and cherry taste, spices, chestnuts and olives. The finish is long and elegant.
Chateau Musar red 1988 berry like aromas buttressed with leathery undertones, rich and intense. Harmonious, well-balanced and smooth with soft tannins and extraordinarily long finish.
Chateau Musar red 1981 ruby red, aromas of chocolate, fruits, spice and tobacco, followed by a powerful full body and intense taste with great concentration. It provides a warm glow of comfort and satisfaction.
Chateau Musar 1978 a mature wine exuding leathery and blackcurrant aromas. Full bodied, spicy and powerful with a long, long finish reminding one of warm vineyards with ripe fruit hanging on vines.
Serge Hochar excels in blending, and subscribes to a rare philosophy that only good vintages deserve to be bottled as Chateau Musar. Lesser vintages are made to rose, or ordinary red wines and some are even sold as bulk wine to other wineries.
Surprisingly, during the 15-year war that ravaged Lebanon, the Hochars missed only two vintages (1976 and 1984).
According to Serge “ great wine should be dangerously attractive … “ and definitely, that goes for his wines.
There are other wineries that produce and sell fine wines;