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The Grape Survivors

Kevin Gould waxes lyrical over Château Musar, a legendary wine from the old Ottoman Levant.

Like an algebraic equation, a journey in Lebanon was never certain to work out. Mountains, some brooding and aggressive, others bristled by forests of ancient cedars, march to all points of the compass, foxing your sense of direction. Checkpoints, either sloppily manned by casual militia, or smartly painted and attended by snappy squaddies, stop vehicles at random. Serge Hochar was making a trip to his vineyards in the Bekaa Valley, a trip that can take him a couple of hours or a whole day away from Beirut, depending on his luck.

Serge is celebrated in Lebanon and throughout the world as a winemaker of rare genius. His label is Château Musar, started by his father, Gaston, in 1931. ‘Our wines are only an expression of their grapes’, he suggests modestly in lilting, French-tinged English. ‘Who am I to change nature? I don’t manipulate my wines, I just trust them. I gamble that time will allow them to evolve’.

The Hochar family took the gamble of following the Crusaders and coming to Lebanon from France in the 1400s. Since then, they have lived on and around Mount Lebanon, prospering gently under a succession of rulers. During the Ottoman Empire, Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon were ruled by the pasha from Damascus, who conscripted Muslims into the army and taxed the Christian communities. This arrangement endured until 1860, when the European Powers intervened. Autonomy was granted to the (Christian) inhabitants of Mount Lebanon.

The Hochars became bankers and built up reserves of gold, which were lent to the Ottoman government during the Great War. After the war, these reserves were repaid in paper - which rapidly became worthless - and in land. It was on some of this land that Gaston Hochar started growing grapes to make the wine that would revive the family fortunes. Forced also into commodity trading, Gaston had a ship stuffed with leather hides sunk by a U-boat. His son remembers that, by way of reparation, the Germans presented an aggrieved Gaston with an enormous Mercedes, in whose leathery embrace he negotiated the narrow hill-streets of Mount Lebanon until the 1960s.

The Musar vineyards lie 1,000 metres above sea level in the Western Bekaa, which is, confusingly, the south side of this broad, majestic valley. The Eastern (or north) Bekaa, where Syria has her border, is dry and dusty, and conforms to a Westerner s preconception of the parched Middle East. The eastern valley is presided over by the astonishing temples of Baalbek, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

The village adjoining Baalbek is a Hizbollah stronghold surrounded by Christian enclaves. Now there is peace, reflects Serge, although he recalls that this wasn’t always so. During the Lebanese civil war, which lasted nearly twenty years, we somehow managed to pick grapes every year except one, when the vineyards were a shooting gallery. In other years, the opposing armies would call a truce during the harvest. Even when the fighting was at its fiercest, our vineyards were never desecrated.

Where the Eastern valley is bone-dry, the Western Bekaa is fertile and lush. Like a painting by Klimt, the valley is a rich, shimmering patchwork of gold, amber and green fields. Bedu tribeswomen graze black, floppy-eared goats on wheat stubble. Vines, some enclosed in vineyards, others woven through villages, flourish in the valley s unthreatening microclimate. To the east, Iraq simmers in a heat haze, and to the south glower the Golan Heights and Galilee.

“Jesus would have walked here with his apostles, and drunk wine from vines like those”, states Serge, pointing towards the villages of Kefraya, Amick and Anna, their churchyards adorned by lovingly tended vines. Indeed, Christ would recognise this place today, no vestige of the twenty-first century, not a telegraph pole or a pylon, interrupts the timeless valley, whose grapes have made wine since perhaps 4000BC. The Phoenicians sailed them to Greece and Italy, from where they were disseminated all over the known world. Indeed, the DNA from Bekaa grapes is still alive in the vineyards that produce fruit for the world s greatest wines, although Château Musar is the only winery that continues to press juice from such ancient varieties as Obaideh (mother of Chardonnay) and Merwah (father of Semillon).

Having tasted grapes, negotiated with foremen and lunched on Arab bread rolled with creamy labne, crunchy cucumbers, olives and oil, Serge drives carefully home along the switchback rat-run to Beirut, where overloaded lorries, throbbing Chevrolets and rusty buses play chicken on blind bends.

Where the Bekaa is timeless, Beirut hustles and jives like a teenager on the make. Until the 1970s the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ attracted tuxedoed sophisticates and slinky glamourpusses to its casinos and deluxe hotels. Today Beirut is desperate to make up time lost during its civil war. Then the Muslim west of the city pitted itself against the Christian east. The main battlefield was the Green Line in Downtown, an area previously the playground of the shiny rich. Even today, some buildings remain derelict and cratered, their pockmarked skins scorched by tracer fire. In recent years a reconstruction programme bordering on the miraculous has seen much of Downtown restored even beyond its former glory. In an area of 200 square metres Roman, Greek, Orthodox, Armenian and Maronite churches again function hugger-mugger with Sunni and Shi ite mosques. The Corniche is once again the promenade to strut your stuff on, with tight jeans, dripping diamonds and a large Mercedes the favoured accessories.

The Hochars live at Adma, smart heart of the Maronite Christian community, in a hill-top eyrie built by Serge during the war. Its construction afforded one something to do, he says, demonstrating some of the sangfroid required to live through years of internecine strife. Their gracious home has sumptuous views over the eastern Mediterranean. Viewed across the valley, nestling on the slopes of Mount Lebanon, is the village of Khasir and the Château Musar winery.

The winery is quiet as Serge strides through a vaulted store-room filled with oak barrels, wine stains bleeding from their bungholes, descending then to an enormous rock-hewn cellar. The atmosphere is humid and cool, the ghostly light diffused by heroic spider-webs. “Musar wines must have three things,” announces Serge suddenly: “truth - nothing fake; length - they must linger in the mouth; and life - they must taste vital, like the land they came from.” Therefore, unlike most wineries, Musar releases only a tiny proportion of its production, and then never before a wine is six years old. The rest, Serge waves triumphantly with his hands, we keep here, giving them time to grow. Many in the wine business believe Château Musar to be maturing the world’s largest stocks of single-estate vintage wine. In these damp grottos, five or six million bottles, dating back to Monsieur Gaston’s first cuvée, are quietly, splendidly evolving.

A half bottle of Château Musar 1977 is poured to toast the silent stock. He sniffs it three times. “This is Lebanon” His inquisitive nose buried inside the glass, he breathes again of its fleshy cherry and clove nose. “Heres to history, the taste of the sun and the action of time” Serge selects three more wines for Cornucopia to taste: a garnet-hued 1959 the first wine he ever made, and a stupendous, rabble-rousing red from the ‘81 harvest, plus a bottle of austere, corn-gold white from 1995. “Like a Médoc, no”? exults Serge. “The only marketing we do is to write on Château Musar ‘s labels ‘Decant before use’ for red wines, and ‘Serve at room temperature ’ for the whites. That’s it”!

Serge Hochar is an instinctive gambler and Château Musar wines benefit enormously from his fallible, human approach. After an extended tasting session with Cornucopia, and seduced by the narcotic effect of his sensual old wines, set to take their place among the world’s great marques, Serge will admit, however, that, as in algebra, he was never sure quite how they would work out.

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Issue 35, 2006 Istanbul Elegy
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