On October 24, 2017, Winemaker/Owner Marc Hochar of the iconic Lebanese winery Chateau Musar came to Toledo, Ohio. Hochar presented, to the wine trade, the ancient culture of Lebanon's wine industry and the defining role that Chateau Musar has played in it. It marked a historic moment between the Lebanese population in Toledo and this historic winery.
We've been making wines in Lebanon for around 5-6,000 years.
Give or take. Because we don't count ... we count in thousands, exactly. In Lebanon, I mean the history of the country obviously is old. There have been people living there and ... so the birthplace of wine is not the Middle East, it's Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is current Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Armenia. So it's a bit more north of where we are. And that's probably 7,000 years ago. There are obviously different people with different numbers but this is roughly the ballpark within 1,000 years as you said. And then the wine made its way through the Middle East around 6,000 years ago. Our ancestors in Mount Lebanon, what is now Mount Lebanon as an area, used to produce wines. Our ancestors were the Canaanites and then eventually the Phoenicians. And we're talking roughly 4,000, 4,500 years ago to 2,500, roughly.
It's a phase which was very long, and the Phoenicians used to be extremely important for wine because they brought in wine from Mesopotamia, started producing it in good quantities and in also good quality, but most importantly, they started selling it. And the Phoenicians has boats. They used to have a trade of cedar wood across the Mediterranean. They used to sell to the pharaohs, eventually to what would become priests, etc. And they would sell initially cedar wood. They sold purple dye. Purple dye was the first dye that was actually a permanent dye, created or harvested from seashells. It's the blood of seashells that existed in the area and that allowed to create ... when you imagine a Roman wearing a purple or a dark red robe, this is the color you would get. And it's the first dye that was permanent, so you didn't have to re-dye all the time.
So they would trade that. A few would trade in the dye that was dark red. They thought, "Okay, why not trade wine? It's almost the same color." Actually, it probably led them to trade all the wines. And so wines gradually made their way westward. And so some of the vines that we have still in Lebanon and when you will taste all the white, the Chateaux Musar white, are probably wines and varieties that existed in Lebanon at the time. So when you're tasting this, you're tasting really wines that were present. Although they were probably prepared in a different way. Because conservation at the time was not easy. Avoiding oxidation, etc. So that's, let's say, 3-4,000 years ago. Fast forward a few thousand years, actually a couple thousand years, you get to 2,000 years ago.
So we're in the era where Romans used to control all of the Mediterranean. They had the ability ... they used to worship gods, different gods for different ... types of gods. And one of them was Bacchus, God of wine. And they could build temples wherever they wanted, because they had all of the Mediterranean. And they decided to build one particular temple for Bacchus, God of wine, in Baalbek. Baalbek is in the Bekaa Valley with a sister property now that I know of in Toledo, one of the sister companies is Toledo. So why did they build it there? Because of the history. 2,000 years ago, they thought, "Okay, there's already a couple of thousand years of history of wine making in the area. So if we're going to build a temple for Bacchus, it has to be there." Probably bigger than it is now. Lebanon became part of the Turkish empire, the Ottoman Empire. And wine production gradually stopped.
And this is where France, Italy, Spain, picked up. Picked up the ball and continued producing wine. So today, when we talk about old red wines, we talk about Italy, France, and Spain because of the contribution they had over the last 1,000, 1,500 years. And so where do we put Lebanon? Which category? We are not Old World. Are we New World? Would you put us in New World category? I don't think we should be in the New World category, also because of the style of our wines. The style of our wines is not New World. But also we've been producing wine for 6,000 years.
So I have a new term that we've introduced and you should remember, which is Ancient World. And so if you have to think of Lebanon and all over the region, all of Mesopotamia included, so Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, think of Ancient World. Because that is really what Lebanon is about. So we get to, let's say, 1850s where monks started producing wines in Lebanon. Usually you realize that most of the alcoholic beverages are produced by monks: wine, beer, a lot of typical things. And they are the ones who really started again the production. And then forward through a bit more history, and sorry if it's a bit long but it's really to give you the context. Because then you understand when you taste some of the wines, why we have certain choices, why we have certain varieties in our wines.
And so the Turkish empire, they were with the Germans, lost World War I. So in 1920, the French and the British decided to determine the borders of what are the current countries in the Middle East, so Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine at the time, because this was Turkey in 1920. And so the British and the French determined all these borders. The French helped set up the government in France, Syria, and north. And the British took all the countries south. So the French were posted in Lebanon. And my grandfather, in the 1920s, went to France to study actually medicine, nothing to do with wine. Didn't like it. Just spent one year, and I think he drank more than he actually studied. Because he came back with an idea, which was he started a winery which was bizarre, initially to cater to the French army that was posted in Lebanon.
He became the only supplier for all the officers, across the Levant area, so all of the Middle East. And this is how Musar started. And when I spoke to my father and the time and my uncle, they tell me at the time even in Bordeaux, people were not bottling wine. They used to sell it in bottle. But my grandfather thought, "No, we're going to really set the level very high," so in terms of quality of what we produce, but also bottling. So we were probably one of the first ones to bottle, even before some of the bigger, earlier ones. To bottle and sell as a bottle. So that's the 1930s.
And then my father took over in '59. If you think of '50s and '60s, this is the time where the chemistry of wine was being discovered. People were starting to understand what is happening really in the wine. What is the fermentation. What is the initial first fermentation then the malolactic fermentation. What else do you have? And human nature is as soon as you understand something, you figure out how it works, what do you want to do? You want to change it, you want to control. This is really human nature. So there was a big shift that was starting to happen in France in particular, because this was sort of the main driver I guess, of finding new technologies to control more wine. If something was missing, they would add something. If something was too much, they would subtract.
Today, you have wines that are made with membranes. You take a wine, you would add lots of things, and then you'd decide through membrane, and then you can strip things out to get to the taste that you want. I call that makeup. And the whole approach of my father when he decided to take over was to say, "We're not going to embrace all of that new, modern technology that's coming to wine. We're going to make our wines natural." Nothing, no makeup, no filtering, natural fermentation. And organic vineyards. No fining, no additives, nothing, really nothing. Even at the beginning, there was no sulfur in our wines. Now, we add a little bit of sulfur. I mean, it's been 20 years, because we sell now everywhere in the world. And so you want to make sure the wines are going to withstand transport. Because transport affects, obviously, the wines. And so with a bit of sulfur, you avoid the deterioration of the wines. But that is the only thing that we do.
And so that approach is really what my father brought to Musar in terms of the philosophy of being, what I call, non-interventionist. And also, the approach of actually creating the blend that you will taste when you taste the Chateau Musar red. The blend of the Chateau is what we're known for is really the brainchild of my father. And now my cousin, my brother, and myself are third-generation running the business. This is the sea. It's blue, it's the Mediterranean. You have Egypt and so we are on the eastern side of the Mediterranean. You have Egypt here, Israel, Lebanon, which is actually a rectangle along the coastline, so this is the green part. Syria to our east and north, and then Turkey. So imagine the green part is Lebanon. We have a 120 miles of coastline. And on average, 30 miles wide. I repeat. 120 miles long, 30 miles wide. So it's tiny. With two mountains.
Actually, there's one chain of mountains on the border with Syria, which is called Anti-Lebanon, Mount Anti-Lebanon, and one chain of mountains in the middle that is called Mount Lebanon. I don't know why they called it Mount Anti-Lebanon, I don't know if there was a subliminal message in there, but this is how small. This two chains of mountains go up to 10,000 feet. So fairly high. Between these two chains, so you have these two chains here, you have the Bekaa Valley. The Bekaa Valley is at 3,000 feet of altitude. So it's nestled between one chain of mountains that protects it from the sea and the humidity and another chain of mountains that protects it from the heat from the desert. So it's a microclimate very specific to the region, to that valley. I would almost call it continental as a climate.
And because we have so much latitude, you have to think of Lebanon as green, not dry. So there's no desert, no camels. It's really a different set of ... you have to imagine Lebanon as mountains, snow, skiing in the winter from Beirut, which is here, to go up to skiing which is here, 45 minutes if there's no traffic. So you wake up in the morning, you open up, there's white covered mountains, just go out skiing. This is what we used to do when I was a kid. And so this Bekaa valley has altitude which allows us really to plant and get bottled wines that are elegant.
Because if you take a line and go this way, you'll reach the top of Morocco. So we are below Sicily, below Crete, below obviously all of Italy and even below the bottom of Spain. So if you're somewhat south, you would expect with the heat, you will get heavier wines, a lot more alcohol, a lot more ripeness, and not too much elegance. But because we have altitude, it allows us to compensate for that southerness that we have.
Do you have to irrigate?
We don't irrigate. We could but we don't. Other wineries do, we don't. Mount Lebanon, from that mountain actually most of the vines are cut because at the time, it was mostly whites. But then as people started wanting reds, I believe that, and vegetables and fruits and wheat, all of that started to be planted in the Bekaa Valley because it's easier, it's flat. Otherwise in Lebanon, you have a lot of terraces, but it's a lot of work. And the reason people built all these terraces in Lebanon was that Lebanon was always invaded by anybody and everybody. And sometimes they got so comfortable that this is when they started to either integrate into the society and then stay or eventually get kicked out by somebody else. But the Mount Lebanon, because it's so steep and so high, was very difficult to conquer.
So the invaders would come to the coastline through the Bekaa Valley, but not on the mountains. And particularly Christians have always stayed in these mountains to protect themselves. Not only the Christians, but those were protecting themselves from invaders. So they had to do all these terraces just to survive because they did not plant it right. As peace started to settle, the Bekaa Valley, which is today the most viable area to plant, is where we have most of the vines now. Now again, look at my graph. So Beirut is here, the middle of the country. The winery is here on the coastline. The vineyards are in the Bekaa Valley, a three-hour truck drive. So why? Again, history. When Lebanon was created in 1920, it was a collection of different areas with different religions, areas which were Christian, areas which were Shiite, Suni, Jews, and so it was a bit of a patchwork.
And my grandfather wasn't sure that this whole thing would survive. So he had a good instinct. And he had a cousin of him who had a palace, which was a 400 year-old-palace called the Musar Palace. In Ghazir, so just over Beirut. And so he decided to start the winery there, but plant in the Beqaa Valley. So this is why today we have a three-hour truck drive. And the way we bring the grapes to the winery is in big trucks where we just put all of the grapes and we take them for a stroll in the sun at 32 degrees for three hours. So for those of you who have done a bit of wine making or oenology classes in wine making, if you go to your class of wine making in France or Italy or wherever and you tell your teacher, "I'm going to take my grapes out at 7:00, 10:00 in the morning and drive them for three hours in the sun before they reach the winery," you won't get your grades.
But this is how we do it. And it is part of history, and this is where history is important for us is that it has determined a lot of things that impact the wines. So our whole approach is natural. I don't want any makeup on our wine. So why do we use wood? We use wood initially just so that the wine gets accustomed to a bit of airing. Because once it's going to be in a bottle, there's always a bit of air that goes through the cork. So the passage in wood is like a vaccination, almost. But we don't want to add any flavor. So when we do, we use old wood. Typically, we only use actually 10% new woods every year, and over 10 years we would have changed all of our barrels. The wood that we use is from France so that is does not have the vanilla aspect of American oak. In France, you have less of this vanilla flavor that comes out.
And we don't even toast it. Because when you build your barrel, you need to burn it a bit just to bend it, bend the wood. But once you bend it, some people also then really burn the inside of the wood. So what does it do? It tends to lead to obviously more smokiness but also the extraction of the tannins of the wood are much faster. But we don't want that. So we basically do not toast it today. And so it is the least possible impact in terms of wood. Why? Because I don't want wood wine. I want wine. So when you taste the wood, what you're tasting is, it's a wine that is a bit more complex. Now, everybody taste different and it's all then a question of how it is to what you're tasting. But it's a wine that's also older. So you're not on fresh fruit anymore. You're starting to move away from fresh fruit to something. Other dried fruit probably would be the best comparison, or stewed fruit, cooked fruit.
So last weekend we were in Alys Beach in Florida and we had the group of sommeliers from around the country who came. And we did two tastings. One only whites, and one only reds. Checking time. The reds, we went from '09 to '64. The reputation of Musar was built on the ability of our wines to age. And the elegance. So we doubled decanted and tasted all the wines, actually blind, because we were going to do two tastings so to keep it interesting, I poured everything blind - 11 wines of reds. And so we did that in the morning. Tasted through the wines for two and a half hours. And then at the end, we had a bit of wine left. We went to the beach and had dinner and then came back around midnight. And then we re-tasted all the wines after 14 hours. And for me, the wines that had really opened up the most and that were showing the best after 14 hours were '64 and '72. After 14 hours.
I mean, I meet some sommeliers who tell me, "If you're going to open a vintage of '66," they don't know Musar, they tell me, "You open it five minutes before and then you pour it," and you don't decant it because after 10 minutes, according to them, all the wines will really shut down. You have an aroma of 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, the wines are no good. In Musar, it's exactly the opposite. You open and you decant and you leave it as much as you can and it will only get better. Now why does it apply to our wines? We always had Cabernet, Cinsault, and Carignan maybe different percentages, and I think at the time of my grandfather we had Petit Verdot and one more, I can't remember. But gradually my father in the '60s narrowed it down and then set the percentages and the methodology of how we made the wine.
So here, the way we make the wines is we harvest every plot of land separate and every variety separate. We keep them in cement vats for one year. Cement, why cement, because it's the most neutral container for us. It is has the least impact on taste. Then it goes through wood for one year. Again not new wood, 25% new wood, not tasted. And then we blend at the end of year two. So we have 15, 20 vats, whatever number. And then we blend them accordingly to basically what we think is a signature design. Then it goes back into cement vats for one year so that the wine settles as well. This is where also it builds up complexity. And then at the end of year three we bottle and then we leave it in our cellars for four, five years before we sell it. So we have a lot of wine.
And this is typical of Musar. If you go older, as the wine becomes more complex, it's very difficult to go back to the younger wine. Because the older wine has much more to say, much more to offer. And the younger wines appear almost simpler after an old wine. But a younger wine on its own is great. So it's just a question of comparison and how you've spoiled yourself by getting the '98 or '01 vintage on the pallet and then having to go back to something which is not as sophisticated. Whites, yeah. These two varietals probably are the ones that existed or is part of the ones that existed at the time. Because they only exist today in Lebanon. So they would not have come from anywhere else. So they are rooted. And I'll tell you to which points. When we harvest the Viognier, Vermentino and Chardonnay in August, they are 14 degrees alcohol, 13.5. Then we harvest the reds in September, 14 degrees alcohol. Then we harvest Obeideh and Merwah, these two local varieties. 12 degrees alcohol in October.
So it's their nature. They are very well adapted to the heat, they know how to deal with the heat of the sun. It's just that when they arrive that because they've been so long in the sun they are almost baked, they are almost brownish but not shriveled. Just a thick skin from tannin. They like tannin. But they only give us 12 degrees of alcohol. So the intensity that you taste is not the alcohol level. It's just the type of the grape, the fact that this is long-ripening, and they're biannual yields. So the grapes in here... so we have two local varietals that only exist in Lebanon. And so these are probably the varietals that I think existed at the time, 4,000, 5,000 years ago. Obeideh. Obeideh. is a local grape that is similar in style to Chardonnay. O-B-E-I-D-E-H.
And the other one is Merwah which we believe is the ancestor of Sauvignon. Merwah is M-E-R-W-A-H. Now you ask me a question of DNA earlier. So we haven't done any DNA analysis on Merwah, but we've done ampelography, which is the analysis of the shape of the leaves. And so we believe it's an ancestor of Sauvignon. But we haven't managed to do the DNA. Another producer lately started using Obeideh and has made the DNA analysis of Obeideh. And according to that result, there's no relative to Chardonnay. But in Lebanon, there are many variations of Obeideh. So we don't know exactly which variation is that, whether they're different or not from the ones that we have. They survive phylloxera. These are the only varietals that we have that survive for phylloxera. And they are a bit higher in the mountains than the the Beqaa Valley. So maybe that's why ... and they're a bit further away.
So because of the distance, maybe it protected them. But today we have to replant a lot of Obeideh and Merwah because many of the vines are too old and are starting to die or are being uprooted.
How old are these vines?
The oldest we have are 100-plus, with the yields, which are tiny.
Note: At the time of this writing, I currently work for Cutting Edge Selections which distributes Chateau Musar in Ohio.
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