On New Year’s Eve, the wine world lost one of its leading statesmen. Serge Hochar, 75, a bon vivant and a beacon for Lebanese wine, passed away while on a family vacation in Acapulco, Mexico.
The owner and longtime winemaker for Chateau Musar, Hochar (pronounced HO-shar) was truly a man of the world. Fluent in multiple languages, including Arabic, English and French, Hochar was best known for steering his family’s winery, founded by his father, Gaston, in 1930, through Lebanon’s brutal 15-year civil war.
In recent years, he tirelessly traveled the globe promoting Musar and Lebanon’s rich winemaking history.
In honor of the beloved Hochar, we have updated a profile of him that originally ran in Wine Enthusiast in 2000:
Once upon a time, Beirut was to the Levant what Havana was to the Caribbean: a thriving beachfront city with high-rise hotels and international culture. While Havana has not recaptured its pre-1959 status, Beirut, sections of which were leveled during Lebanon’s civil war from 1975–90, continues to battle back. And a winery, Chateau Musar, is helping to lead the charge.
Founded 85 years ago by Gaston Hochar, a wealthy Christian businessman with vineyards among his holdings, the winery, located in a northern suburb of Beirut called Ghazir, lost only the 1976 and ’84 vintages to the fighting between the Christian government’s forces and Syrian-backed Shiite Muslims. His son, Serge, Musar’s Bordeaux-trained winemaker since 1959, and Serge’s brother, Ronald, continued their work even during the most violent stretches of the war.
Today, much of the day-to-day duties have been transferred to Serge Hochar’s sons, Gaston and Marc, and his nephew, Ralph. Yet, right up until his death, Serge was the international face of what can only be described as a unique entity.
“Unique” is one of the most overused words in the wine lexicon. But the wines of Chateau Musar, both its red blend and a highly idiosyncratic white blend, are indeed uniquely vinified and aged.
Take the red wine. Cabernet, Cinsault and Carignan are harvested from vineyards surrounding three villages in the Bekaa Valley, a limestone-based flatland between Lebanon’s two major mountain ranges.
The grapes are trucked to the winery outside Beirut, normally a four-hour ride. (During the war, it sometimes took 5–10 days.) Once at the winery, housed in an 18th-century mzar (Arabic for a “shrine” or “castle,” source of the Musar name), the fruit is vinified separately.
After fermentation, the wines are put into closed-top, unlined concrete tanks for one year. They are moved into oak barriques for a year, followed by a return into the cement for another year. Only then are the various lots are blended into the final wine, not according to formulae, but by the Hochars’ taste and whim.
“Each wine has its own individuality,” said Hochar, a “philosopher sans pareil,” according to Bartholomew Broadbent, Musar’s longtime U.S. importer. “I hate neutral wines, just as I don’t much care for neutral people.”
Tasting Musar’s red wine for the first time can be revelatory. The combination of Bordeaux depth, south-of-France spice and Lebanese terroir is highly satisfying. Spice notes, particularly cardamom and garam masala, form an undercurrent that supports dried-cherry fruit and touches of tomato.
“I would like to think that ours is a wine that impresses, a connoisseur’s wine,” said Hochar during an interview nearly 15 years ago.
The white wine, made from a blend of the obscure Merwah and Obaideh grapes, is provocative. It features nutty notes akin to fino Sherry, bracing acidity and subtle fruit that emerges after patient swirling.
Having lived through so much, including the 2010 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Hochar, an apolitical Christian, liked to refer to himself as an “adventurist.”
“For thousands of years, Lebanon has been at war, then peace,” said Hochar while recalling a day in 1990 when his neighborhood in Beirut came under heavy mortar fire. “It’s the fate of the Phoenicians—we are always rebounding,”
Hochar’s apartment building was evacuated that day, but he refused to leave. When the shelling stopped, he stood alone in his living room, feeling the wind off the Mediterranean on his face. Every window in the building had been blown out.
Today, as normality returns to Beirut, there seems no better way to toast the memory of Serge Hochar than with a glass of wine from the redoubtable Chateau Musar.
Hochar is survived by his wife, Tania, his sons, Gaston and Marc, a daughter, Karin, his brother, Ronald, three sisters and multiple grandchildren. Funeral services were scheduled for this week in his hometown of Beirut.