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Lebanese winemaker reflects on coming harvest

Serge Hochar, who has run his family’s winery during other conflicts, remains hopeful. His wine, Château Musar, is Lebanon’s most famous red.

“The vineyards are usually not the target,” Serge Hochar observes, stating both fact and hope. “However, the pickers could be frightened if they are shelling.”  Hochar is thinking about the coming harvest — and the current war. This is winemaking in Lebanon.

But not just any wine. Imagine a red that is wonderfully complex, unfolds minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour to reveal yet another component, another layer. Such an experience is rare by everyday wine standards. In fact, the wine I am describing might well be the most fascinating wine I’ve tasted this year, a wine with pedigree that has developed wonderfully and is, in a word, glorious.

It could be a Burgundy, a prestigious Bordeaux, or perhaps a Barolo from Italy’s Piedmont. All would be good guesses. But this is a wine — the wine — from Lebanon. It is a Château Musar.

Almost from the start of this bloody conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, I have been thinking of Château Musar, Lebanon’s most famous wine and, in the opinion of many critics, one of the world’s greatest. My thinking was brought into sharper focus the other day when, in my neighborhood wine store in New York, I happened to come across the 1997 red Château Musar (pronounced Mue-zar).

Here I was, connected to a war a half a world away by a bottle of red wine I found a couple of blocks from the comfort of home, a wine that most people would not recognize but would, I am now certain, appreciate and covet if given the chance to experience it.

I myself was eager to try it, and I'll get to my impressions in a moment. More importantly, I wondered how Château Musar, which was started by Hochar’s father Gaston in 1930 in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon and had already survived decades of civil war, was holding up during this latest conflict.

The answer came in a telephone conversation with Serge Hochar, who has run Château Musar since 1959, after studying winemaking in Bordeaux. He was in his car, driving home from his office in Beirut to a suburb in the Christian part of Lebanon (an experience that gives new urgency to the dangers of driving while talking on a cell phone).

“Our office was 500 meters from where the shelling yesterday was going on,” he tells me. What was that like? I ask. “It does shake me up physically,” he says, “but not morally. Never.”

“Because I've been living in Lebanon for so many years, I have become used to such situations,” he says matter-of-factly about the war.  His concerns are entirely practical.  The harvest — first the white grapes followed by the reds — usually begins in late August and goes through September.

Beyond the worry that his pickers might be scared away by the violence, there’s the issue of getting the grapes from the Bekaa to the winery in Ghazir, which is north of Beirut and 60 to 70 miles away. “We have to bring the grapes to the winery, which could be difficult because of the roads,” Hochar says, referring to damage from the bombing. “Transportation could be a problem for us. It depends on how long this situation lasts. If it's settled in the next month it won't be a problem.”

Opening a bottle of the '97 Château Musar shows why we should share his hope. The wine, which is $45 and more than fairly priced, is striking from the first breath. Ruby in color, there are aromas of cedar and earth and a bit of tobacco.  I take a sip then pour some more. There’s some meat now and more earth. I swirl it, smell and sip it again. Now the fruit is emerging —blackberry and plum, eventually some raspberry. There are also touches of mocha, vanilla, butterscotch. The finish is spicy. It goes on like this over the course of a couple of hours or so. But the wine is more than a collection of tastes, descriptions of which cannot do it justice in its entirety. It is an experience.

Food seems almost incidental and should be kept simple. On this night it was grilled lamb, ratatouille, and freshly picked corn. The wine, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, carignan and cinsault grapes grown at 3,000 feet, is softly tannic and brightly acidic, with everything in balance.  It is concentrated but not overpowering. It is elegant. At nine years old it seems in its prime.

But Hochar corrects me. “The '97,” he says, “is still a very young baby. The '97 you are enjoying now will be totally different in four years. It will be a different animal.”  Of that he seems certain. Of this war and of Lebanon, however, he won’t predict.  He says he’s too old for that and doesn’t do it anymore. He has, he says, learned to live with it all.  Serge Hochar has never let war come between him and his wine.

Château Musar is imported by Broadbent Selections at>.

Edward Deitch's wine column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at EdwardDeitch