DRINKS

The Middle East may seem an un­likely source for a good drop, but this is where wine was born, writes MAX ALLEN.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Regulars -

The Middle East may seem an un­likely source for a good drop, but this is where wine was born.

The world’s old­est win­ery is in a cave in a re­mote val­ley in Ar­me­nia. Here, ar­chae­ol­o­gists have found re­mains of a fer­ment­ing vat, a wine press and grape seeds dat­ing back more than 6,000 years. Re­searchers have found sim­i­larly an­cient ex­am­ples of wine­grow­ing in both Turkey and Iran.

We don’t need ar­chae­ol­o­gists, of course, to tell us that the Middle East was the birth­place of wine. The Bi­ble is drip­ping in it: Noah was the world’s first vi­gneron, and Je­sus was a big fan, turn­ing wa­ter into wine, and wine into his own blood.

To­day, though, the Middle East might not be the first place that comes to mind when we think of wine pro­duc­tion. Most peo­ple’s im­me­di­ate per­cep­tion of the re­gion, I sus­pect, is that al­co­hol is for­bid­den in many mod­ern Mus­lim coun­tries, while wars and civil un­rest af­flict the oth­ers.

But there’s still plenty of wine be­ing made in the Middle East. A younger gen­er­a­tion of Turk­ish wine­mak­ers, for ex­am­ple, are re­dis­cov­er­ing their lo­cal grape va­ri­eties – such as öküzgözü, or “bull’s eye”, which I wrote about in these pages re­cently – and are mak­ing de­li­cious, medium-bod­ied, char­ac­ter­ful wines from them. And Is­rael is en­joy­ing a vi­nous re­nais­sance, boast­ing more than 300 bou­tique producers and a thriv­ing wine cul­ture in the capital cities.

Per­haps the most fa­mous of all Middle Eastern winer­ies, though, is Le­banon’s Chateau Musar. It’s not the only win­ery in that country, or the old­est, but Musar has gained par­tic­u­lar fame partly be­cause its back­story reads more like a Hem­ing­way novel than the evo­lu­tion of a wine busi­ness.

The win­ery was founded just north of Beirut in 1930 by 20-year-old Gas­ton Hochar. In the early 1940s, Gas­ton be­friended a Bordeaux chateau owner, Ron­ald Bar­ton, who was sta­tioned in Le­banon for the war, and Gas­ton’s son Serge went on to study oenol­ogy in Bordeaux in the 1950s, so­lid­i­fy­ing their re­la­tion­ship with the French re­gion. The younger Hochar took over as Musar wine­maker at age

29 after giv­ing his fa­ther an ul­ti­ma­tum: “I want to make the wine my way, I want it to be known world­wide – and I want you to quit!”

Dur­ing the Le­banese Civil War, from 1975 to 1990, Serge Hochar stead­fastly con­tin­ued to make wine, truck­ing grapes to the win­ery from his vine­yards in the Bekaa Val­ley near the Syr­ian bor­der, of­ten run­ning a gant­let of ma­chine guns and mor­tar fire. This alone is enough to merit ad­mi­ra­tion, but the wine Hochar made was also very good, par­tic­u­larly the red Chateau Musar, an un­usual, long-lived blend of Bordeaux’s no­ble caber­net sauvi­gnon and the un­der­rated carig­nan and cin­sault, red grapes from France’s hot south.

Like Hem­ing­way, in the last decades of his life Serge Hochar was renowned as much for his charis­matic pub­lic per­sona and his idio­syn­cratic pro­nounce­ments as for what he pro­duced. There’s even a touch of Hem­ing­way to Hochar’s end: the 75-year-old died just after Christ­mas in 2014 while swim­ming in Aca­pulco.

Serge’s brother, Ron­ald, and sons, Gas­ton and Marc, along with Ron­ald’s son Ralph, con­tinue to build on Hochar’s legacy, main­tain­ing the style of Chateau Musar it­self, but also tak­ing the busi­ness in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions: plant­ing new grapes such as chardon­nay and viog­nier; con­vert­ing the vine­yards to or­ganic farm­ing; and launch­ing a new range of younger, more mod­ern wines un­der the Je­une la­bel.

“Chateau Musar is not the only win­ery in Le­banon, or the old­est, but it has gained par­tic­u­lar fame partly be­cause its back­story reads like a Hem­ing­way novel.”

Re­cently I tasted the Musar wines (and a gor­geous spirit) cur­rently avail­able in Australia, and was re­minded how dis­tinc­tive and de­li­cious they are, par­tic­u­larly after a few years in the bot­tle.

The 2016 Je­une White ($30) is a blend of the white grapes just men­tioned, plus ver­mentino, and is a golden, tex­tu­ral, deeply savoury wine – the kind of dry white you want on your table when­ever salty fried fish is served. The 2014 Je­une Red (also $30) takes Musar’s sig­na­ture caber­net and cin­sault grapes and blends them with syrah, pro­duc­ing a gutsy, fleshy, bold wine that would be a very happy match with gar­licky lamb.

The cur­rent Chateau Musar is the 2009 vin­tage ($100), and it’s still quite closed and youth­ful – though de­cant­ing and splash­ing it into a big glass re­veals lovely hedgerow fruit and an ap­peal­ing bal­samic tang. The 1999 (also around $100), by con­trast, is just hit­ting its straps: earthy and quite rus­tic to smell, it comes alive in the mouth, with silky red fruit per­fectly bal­anced by long, fine, grippy tan­nins. A great bot­tle of ma­ture red wine.

To top it all off, there’s L’Arack de Musar ($80), a su­perfine, aniseed-flavoured spirit dis­tilled from the es­tate’s wine and aged in ter­ra­cotta am­phorae.

It’s 53 per cent al­co­hol but is sur­pris­ingly sweet, smooth and bal­anced, even when tasted with­out the cus­tom­ary dash of wa­ter. One sip and you’re trans­ported to a small café in Beirut, your senses suf­fused with the sights and sounds of the city.

From left: L’Arack de Musar, Je­une Red, 1999 Chateau Musar and Je­une White.

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