“The dimension of taste in Lebanon is different than anywhere else,” he said. “Not better, but different. Better has no meaning.” -Serge Hochar (as quoted in The New York Times 04/04/2012)
Last month a small group of about 20 Houston wine professionals was invited to take part in something potentially life-altering. Serge Hochar, the 70+ year old winemaker of Chateau Musar was hosting a rather expansive tasting of his wines from relatively recent vintages as well as particularlry old vintages. The vintages ranged from a 1961 blanc that drank like a deep, cloudy and profoundly nutty Jerez to a 2003 rouge that smacked of bright, rich fruit, steady, sure tannins and layers of a delicately building earthiness. The tasting of these wines was intense and unusual, much like Serge himself. When asked a specific question about the wines he has made, Serge invariably pulls said question into a realm into which it was never designed to enter, often answering several other questions never asked before actually (sort of… vaguely) answering at least some small part of the original question. He also makes a point of saying such arcane little phrases like “I don’t know anything about wine. I know how to make wine. But I know nothing about wine.” Interesting. When I myself asked Serge to give us all a better mental picture, a closer experience, if you will, of what it was actually like to be among the scattered vineyard sites of Lebanan I was treated to a very long diatribe on the dangers of asking “too serious and anxious questions.” No offense was taken here though I did find it somewhat interesting that the one thing that intrigued me most about these wines, i.e. where they orignate from, seemed almost lost on Monsieur Hochar. Oh well. The man is a genius, nevertheless, in my book. He makes beautiful wines from vineyards among one of the world’s most war-torn places in the world. His wines are made with very little (in fact, practically none) chemical interaction. Sulphur and pesticides are kept to ridiculously low levels and I feel that Serge has taken a decidedly hands-off approach when it comes to actually making these wines. However, the little involvement he does hold in these wines is just substantial and important enough to render them wildly interesting and so variable from vintage to vintage that it is difficult to pin down something of a winemaker’s “signature quality” among them other than the fact that they are all almost mystical in their individuality. The reds are bold and unique; they smell and taste like something in the realm of Bordeaux and Rhone but they have another quality about them that proves them indisputably of another place and philosophy. The whites are even perhaps more intriguing. They are huge, lush and reminiscent of old vintage Bordeaux.
Lebanon is an ancient country and has been rocked with religious and political strife for most of its life. Civil war and conflict with Israel have decimated large swaths of its population yet it continues to survive and Phoenix itself just like the ancient Phoenicians who once not only dominated civilization in this area of the Middle East but also developed the first alphabet and captivated Rome with the quality of its wine. (Incidently, it can reasonably be argued that the Phoenicians developed a writing system in order to keep track of its bustling wine business throughout the Mediterraenian and beyond.)
Serge did eventually attempt to answer the orignal question I put to him. At some point in what felt like a very long but wise meandering through about a thousand different ideas and approaches to not only the art and science of making wine but to life, in general, as well, Serge began to describe the landscape of Lebanon. He reminded us of the fact that Lebanon begans at the sea but then rises boldly and swiftly into snow-capped mountains; then, the landscape dips again as you go east, only to rise dramatically into yet more mountains. He spoke of the delicious imagery often written in the Bible: the “Cedars of Lebanon.” He talked of such strange as going sking in the mountains, “among the Cedars” and then negotiating the delivery of grapes meant to be turned into wine across from the vineyards in the Bekaa Valley down toward the sea to Chateau Musar across treacherous, dangerous roads during times of Civel War… The images he left in my mind were disastrously confirming: this may be the strangest winemaking scenario in all the world today. And strange things married with beauty and character, history and science are those things I deeply respect and constantly seek.
2003 Vintage Red and White are currently in inventory at 13 celsius.