A winner in war and peace

In his 72 years, Serge Hochar has produced 53 vintages of Chateau Musar, a wine that has enthralled several generations only partly because of its unusual provenance: the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

On a whirlwind visit to New York, he says: ''I know nothing about wine.

''I know how to make wine but I know nothing about wine and each day I discover that I know less.''

It is an unusual message in a world that seems so wedded to technical facts and certainty. More often wine discussions centre on easily discernible questions of pH and acidity, the source of wood for barrels, fermentation temperatures and viticultural techniques. But Hochar, slender and natty in a grey suit and red tie, is having none of that. Instead, he speaks in gnomic phrases, which perhaps do little to further an understanding of precisely how Musar is made but do much to explain why his audience finds his wines compelling.

''He's like a philosopher in a way,'' says Christy Frank, who discovered Musar as a business school student and now runs a wine shop, Frankly Wines, in New York, which is adorned with an image of Musar in stained glass. ''I love that he never answers the question he's asked but always takes it to another level and makes it about life rather than about wine.''

The wines are remarkable. The red, a blend of cabernet sauvignon with cinsault and carignan, is like an otherworldly bordeaux - rich, ripe, lightly spicy with its own peculiar funk that people tend to love or hate. The white is even more unusual, made of ancient indigenous grapes obaideh and merwah. Both are complex and worthy of long ageing.

But just as significant is the Musar story. Through the decades of strife that engulfed Lebanon, Hochar continued making his family's wines. Aside from the general astonishment that wines so good could come from so unheralded a viticultural source, Chateau Musar became an emblem of perseverance and human achievement in the wake of dehumanising conflict. Now, as Lebanon has quietened, a new generation has fallen in love with the wines of Musar. The wines exert their charms, of course, but much of the allure comes from Hochar's way of doing business, of making his own rules and through the power of his charisma.

At the Spotted Pig restaurant in New York, he insists on reversing the usual order of food and wine service. ''Once you taste the wines, you'll understand why my white is my biggest red,'' he says. It's the sort of wisdom that endears him to fans, such as the wine director at the Spotted Pig, Carla Rzeszewski.

Of the three reds, all delicious with lamb, the 2001 is lovely, pure and very young, all elbows and knees. The 2000 has a touch of characteristic funk to it, yet seems even more disjointed than the '01.


By contrast the 1993 is mellow and fully integrated, with a core of fruit augmented by subtle earthy, aromas and an attractive funkiness that seems to stem primarily from volatile acidity, or VA, a quality that when too pronounced can be a flaw. But Hochar sees it differently. ''Wine is such a complex thing and VA is part of wine,'' Hochar says. ''If you have none, it's a flaw … It's a question of balance. Life is harmony.''

After the reds come the quail and the white wines. Indeed, as Hochar suggests, they are bigger than the reds - not more alcoholic but richer. At room temperature, their texture and opaque complexity remind me of good white bordeaux or the white riojas of Lopez de Heredia. The '04 has a slightly honeyed quality yet is stone dry. The '03 offers more mineral flavours, while the '01 seems to lack a bit of harmony. Best of all is an older white served with the cheese, a gorgeous 1975 that has the same sweet-yet-dry quality as the '04.

New York Times

Chateau Musar wines are sold at Porters Liquor.