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