Wine: Grapes of Wrath

Jo Burzynska talks to a Lebanese winemaker about his distinctive wines — and the challenge of producing them in a war zone

Chateau Musar ‘Musar Jeune’ Rose 2013; Chateau Musar ‘Musar’ Jeune Red 2011; Chateau Musar 2007. Picture / Supplied.

“We could see the bullets flying and tank artillery from the vineyard,” recalls Chateau Musar’s Ralph Hochar of the dramatic 2006 vintage. Although weather tends to be the main threat for most winemakers at harvest, the wars that have raged for decades in Lebanon have provided its winegrowers with altogether more serious challenges.

“We were almost the only ones in Lebanon crazy enough to be harvesting at a time when factories and plants were being destroyed in the war,” he adds. The wine from that vintage has yet to be released as it appears to have absorbed some of the trauma that surrounded its making.

“It was produced in dramatic and hard conditions and the wine so far is very moody,” Hochar notes. However, he has other wines to show us on this, his first visit to New Zealand, as well as fascinating tales to tell about his family winery and the turbulent winegrowing history of Lebanon.

It was a chance meeting between Ralph’s grandfather, Gaston Hochar, and a Frenchman, Ronald Barton of Bordeaux’s famed Barton family, that proved important in the establishment of Chateau Musar. Gaston trained in medicine, but in 1930 planted vineyards on family land in the Bekaa Valley and built a winery in the cellar of the family home 25km north of Beirut, his encounter with Barton influencing the Musar style.

At that time Chateau Musar was only the third winery in the country. Today there are about 40 wineries in a tiny country that Ralph says would fit into New Zealand 25 times. There are now 2000ha of vineyards in production and the country’s profile is largely built on the efforts of Gaston’s son and Ralph’s uncle, the late Serge Hochar, who made Chateau Musar into an international label.

“The fourth generation is on its way into the business, with the work now spread between these and the third and second,” explains Ralph.

Though Bordeaux provided the earliest inspiration for Chateau Musar, and the flagship wines are made in a more Old World style, the warmer climes of Lebanon result in a riper, more generous taste. The country’s warm climate is mitigated by the high altitude of the Bekaa Valley, with conditions far more predictable than those in Bordeaux.

Harder to deal with has been the ongoing conflict in the country.

“In the last part of the Lebanese Civil War we weren’t far from the bullets, with fighting between the two groups on both sides of the nearby mountains,” Ralph tells us. “We had people hiding in the winery’s cellars and the issue of bringing the grapes from the Bekaa Valley back to the winery. It was a challenging time for the family.”

Despite this, the Hochars only missed one vintage due to the hostilities — testament to the dedication that’s resulted in decades of distinctive and intriguing wines.

Chateau Musar ‘Musar Jeune’ Rose 2013 $32
A rich, dry and savoury rose made from cinsault, that’s full-bodied with ripe strawberry fruit and a nutty finish.

Chateau Musar ‘Musar’ Jeune Red 2011 $33
Made in a modern fruit-driven style, this blend of cinsault, syrah and cabernet sauvignon has bright, juicy and soft plum fruit with notes of spice and herb.

Chateau Musar 2007 $68
Chateau Musar’s long-lived flagship red made from cabernet sauvignon, carignan and cinsault is always released with at least four years bottle age. It’s robust and rich, but with an elegance to its weighty palate of supple blackberry fruit, notes of chocolate, spice, smoke and tar.

• All wines available from Glengarry Victoria Park and The Wine Barrel.

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