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Obituary: Serge Hochar of Lebanon's Château Musar

Published:  04 January, 2015

Michael Karam, acclaimed journalist, ambassador for Lebanese wine and author of  Wines of Lebanon remembers, Serge Hochar, the charismatic and buccaneering owner of Lebanon's Château Musar, who died at the age of 74, while on holiday with his family in Mexico over the new year.



Michael Karam, acclaimed journalist, ambassador for Lebanese wine and author of  Wines of Lebanon remembers Serge Hochar, the charismatic and buccaneering owner of Lebanon's Château Musar, who died at the age of 74, while on holiday with his family in Mexico over the new year.

In the late 70s, when Lebanon was known more for its gun-slinging militiamen, Serge Hochar reminded the world that the country could make wines of extraordinary beauty and character and in doing so unleashed upon the world wines with a genuine cult status and a profound expression of a unique terroir.

They developed a devoted following across the globe, especially in the UK - Waitrose alone is understood to sell as much as 60 cases a week of his £20-plus Château red - but it was Hochar's determination to make his wines in the darkest days of Lebanon's civil conflict that cemented his place in wine lore; the world, and the British in particular, fell head over heels in love with the impish man with a deep, unwavering spiritual streak who risked all for his grapes.

And this box office appeal never left him. In later years, wherever he set up shop, either at a fair or a tasting, the faithful would gather to pay their respects. At the London Wine Fair in 2005, Château Musar had taken a stand on the outer fringes of the show. It wasn't prime real estate, but it didn't matter. Hochar could have been sitting in the car park; it wouldn't have made a blind bit of difference, and the Lebanese wineries that were established in the wake of his success must concede that Hochar's celebrity and the popularity of his, albeit quirky, wines, smoothed the path on their journey to international acceptance.

Serge Gaston Hochar was born in 1940 into a well-to do Maronite family that had made and lost its money in banking. His father Gaston had founded Chateau Musar 10 years earlier and quickly found favour with the 30,000 troops and administrators stationed during the Post World War One mandate period.

Hochar, who made his first vintage in 1956, received much of his wine making experience at Langoa Barton estate, before, during and after studying oenology at the University of Bordeaux. "I was mesmerised by the miracle of wine and the miracle of yeast," he recalled in 2004. "It is something that our brain will never understand."

Château Musar was not unknown in the UK. The '59 and the '61 had been sold by the Wine Society in the early 70s at 67p a bottle, but it was only after the Lebanese civil war forced Hochar to redouble his export efforts that his wines were first discovered and then championed by Michael Broadbent in 1979. It was after this auspicious meeting, one that would turn into an enduring friendship, that Hochar and his wines began their amazing journey.

In 1984, Hochar was the first recipient of Decanter's inaugural Man of the Year award, given to him as much for his gallantry than for his wine, even if he was always quick to rebuff those who say it was merely the accident of war that won him the recognition. "The fact is that I was able to harvest and produce an exceptional wine against the odds. It is the wine rather than the circumstances. I was not a simple vigneron. I was a wine maker, making a wine that no one had seen before."

His was nonetheless a story of which a thriller writer would have been proud. "What can I say? We had problems with transporting our grapes overland and we had trouble shipping our wines overseas. That is war. I knew 1983 was going to be a bad year. We harvested 40 days late and then there was the fiasco with the transport. You cannot imagine how many routes we used that year to get past all the various militias. If I wanted to take my trucks south, we would have to go through Kefraya, Mashghara and on to Sidon, where we would load the trucks onto a ferry and sail to Jounieh and then drive to the winery. The northern route was equally impossible. It would take five days for the grapes to arrive. In 1990, I had to take another route as the fighting had moved that year. We had to go through the Cedars, via Baalbek to reach Ghazir."

The wine for which he put it all on the line was, and still is, an unmanipulated blend of Cinsault, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon brimming with deliberate volatile acidity and a hint of Brett. It can thrill and frustrate in equal measure. Dismissed as knackered and faulty by many in the industry, his legion of fans remained fiercely loyal.

His lesser known, but arguably more complex, oak aged whites, made with the indigenous Obeideh and Merweh, have been rejected as too oxidative but others see them as a living expression of Lebanese terroir.  "To understand my wine you need and brain and soul," he assured me. "If you don't have them, what can I do?"

Ultimately Serge Hochar was a fighter; for wine, which he believed unlocked the door to human understanding; for his country, which he saw as a glorious, magical and even mystical land, the crucible of all things human and good, and for what it meant to be Lebanese, to be blessed and cursed in equal measure, but to trust in the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.