It’s not often you get to meet a legend in the wine business, let alone a legend that makes his wines in the formerly war-torn country of Lebanon. That was the case in Kansas City recently when I visited with Marc Hochar.
Hochar is part of the third generation of ownership in Chateau Musar, a winery I first became aware of in the ’80s and whose wines I don’t believe I’ve tried since then.
Hochar was in town to host a wine dinner at Tannin Wine Bar and Kitchen. It was his first visit to our fair city. I had the chance to chat with Hochar and sip some wine as he opened and decanted his Bekaa Valley bottlings for what would be a stupendous multi-course extravaganza!
“My grandfather, Gaston Hochar, planted vines in the Western Bekaa Valley in 1930. He had returned from medical studies in Bordeaux, which he didn’t really like. He saw an opportunity to sell wine to the French who’d been posted in Lebanon to help establish the government, so he planted the vines and started the winery,” Hochar said.
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The idea of vineyards in Lebanon might seem strange to a Westerner. But history tells us the area has been home to grapes for 6,000 years. Commercial vineyards were a part of the trade of the sea-faring ancestors of the modern Lebanese, the Phoenicians.
The region’s wines are mentioned many times in the Bible, and it was religion that brought the Hochars to Lebanon. The Hochar family arrived in Lebanon with the Crusades and have remained there ever since.
“The market of selling wine to the French in Lebanon lasted about 20 years. Our market changed dramatically when Lebanon gained its independence from France,” Hochar stated. At that point, the winery began selling in Europe and the legend of Chateau Musar began to grow with the excellent quality, and unlikely story, of these stunning wines from the Middle East.
Much of the credit for the modern-day success of Chateau Musar goes to Marc Hochar’s father, Serge, who, as a trained winemaker, narrowed the focus in the vineyards to three grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, and Cinsault, and finalized the blend of those grapes for Chateau Musar’s red wines in the 1970s.
Beyond his technical skills, Serge Hochar was also doggedly determined. These winemaking advances came at a time when Lebanon was ravaged by a 15-year civil war, when just getting to the vineyards from Beirut meant risking your life. Through all of that, Chateau Musar missed just one vintage, and that, Hochar told me, was a result of a lack of gasoline rather than the fighting.
Chateau Musar has three labels: Chateau Musar, which offers a red, white and rosé, Hochar Pere Et Fils, which produces a single red and Musar Jeune, which also bottles a red, white and rosé. The Chateau Musar wines are delicious and amazingly long-lived.
“Even if you taste many vintages of Musar, every vintage is different. But there is always a common thread across all of these vintages,” Hochar said.
The most memorable wines of the Kansas City event that I tasted were the Chateau Musar 1999 red and Chateau Musar 1999 white.
The Chateau Musar red serves up a hypnotizing combination of baked fruit flavors and aromas of spice. It is amazingly long on the palate, enveloping your senses for a minute or more.
The Chateau Musar white was, if possible, even more dramatic. Dark golden in color, the eyes would tell you the wine is shot. It is anything but. Tasting almost like a dry Sauternes or a well-aged white Bordeaux, the wine serves up baked pie aromas and flavors combined with a nice hint of spice and solid acidity to keep things balanced.
In fact, if there were one word I would assign to all the wines of Chateau Musar, it would be that — balance. They are balanced in their youth, which enables them to age gracefully for years, even decades.
Hochar said that style and the overall philosophy at Chateau Musar will never change.
“We will continue down the path that my grandfather and father have forged, clean wines, authentic wines, organic wines. No intervention in the winery. Really pure,” Hochar concluded.
What a pleasure it was to meet a wine legend and taste his family’s legendary wines. I hope our paths cross again.
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.