“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





10 February 2015


Serge Hochar of Château Musar

Making wine from adversity:
a reflection on two great men
who stoically plugged away

In the break between Christmas and New Year, there was tickle of rocketry and tankfire during a macho bristle on the border of Lebanon. Not many were killed.


But I was worried. Whenever this shit happens, there are those in the inner sanctum of the international wine community who think immediately of Serge Hochar and his family, who make the gorgeous wines of Château Musar in the Bekaa Valley north of the Golan.

The stylish, but impish Serge was Decanter magazine's inaugural winemaker of the year in 1984.

While this award has since become pretty much the world's biggest wine gong, not one of the subsequent recipients can match the citation given Serge, who in that year moved his grapes right across the wide valley from the kilometer-high vineyards in the east to the winery at Ghazir in the west, between the wedding town of Cana 'way south and the Roman temples to Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus at Baalbeck just north.

If I followed the gospel of my old man the preacher, I'd say the Maronite Christian Serge made wine at the gates of Heaven AND Hell. And sometimes, contrary to the shrugging-off typical of Serge, the winemaking did seem miraculous.

The incessant tank cannon, rocket and machinegun fire that peppered that slow 1984 convoy assured the fruit was a half-fermented mess by the time it eventually made the winery. Given Serge's determined refusal to buckle, he insisted on making something from it anyway. He eased it through the stills with some anise and made a fine arak.

Max Schubert in his little office-cum-blending room, hidden in the still house at Penfolds Magill, 1984. Photo from A year in the life of Grange, by Milton Worldey and Philip White

Max Schubert, who would have turned 100 yesterday, was another Decanter winemaker of the year. Like Serge, Max made wine under adversity, although his had nothing on Serge.

While they never met, these men shared a stubborn determination: whatever the conditions, they made wine.

The extreme mindless violence Max survived in the war in North Africa was partly responsible for his determination to do something constructive and lasting should he ever get safely home.  Thus came Grange. When the horrible management ladies in Sydney ordered that he cease its production, there was no more chance of Max  obeying than there was of Serge missing a vintage.

Apart from their shared predeliction for impeccable suits and contrasting shards of thirsty wit and mischeif, both men had a passion for red wines of extreme longevity and deep, comforting soulfulness, regardless of the fashionable fads and whims of their day.

Sgt Schubert in Cairo, World War II ... photo from the Schubert family collection

Only a very lucky few will remember wines like Max's Penfolds Bin 426 Shiraz Ouillade 1969, which was that ingenious winemaker blending a red designed to be a touch more approachable in its youth than the mighty Grange, which was built to go thirty years or more. 

That 426 was no Beaujolais, but it was a perfectly soft and soulful balm from its release through a decade or two, given the cork.

The softness, the bit Max called "mother wine," was the red grape Ouillade, otherwise known as Cinsault or Blue Imperial. Like its north-western Mediterranean kin, Carignan, this grew a lot around the Barossa until the wine industry idiots of the day - you know who you are - conspired to have those priceless old bush vines destroyed during the Labor government's triumph of heritage terrorism, the mid-eighties Vine Pull Scheme.

With the advent of consumer fascination in red blends after the south of France and Spain styles, we see frontrunning vignerons sensibly planting both these varieties today. In suitably modest volumes.

Which makes perfect sense. We have the best Mediterranean climate on Earth, but it'll take the new pioneers some time to work all this very old stuff out.

Serge came from a French line of Crusaders. He joked about "coming to Lebanon 1000 years ago," and while I never visited him in Beirut I have heard many accounts from those few who did of his determination never to acknowledge the thump of heavy weaponry.

Especially during coffee, arak, chocolate or wine.

I shall never forget him suggesting with a quiet, Max-like chuckle that the punks and bohemians in The Exeter Hotel were more scary than his hometown. He sat through that, too. We had fun.

The principal Château Musar red is a blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan. Bits of Grenache and Mourvèdre (a.k.a. Monastrelle and Mataro) sometimes find their way in; the percentages are never revealed. Like much of Max's red, the wine is fermented in thick waxed concrete fermenters. Once dry, the wine goes into French oak for a year before blending and being returned to old seasoned oak for maturation. The wine quietly enters the market around four years after bottling. It will bloom over decades of cool cellaring.

The last time I drank Serge's wine was at my birthday last year. You can read my reviews here. I put them up with a red blend made by John Gilbert, another winemaker who shares an innate understanding of the 'mother wine' soulfulness both Serge and Max engaged in all their winemaking. I shall review some more of his By Jingo wines soon.

Anyway, on the holidays, when that rattle of death machinery came out of my twitter, the cross hairs of my yearning wound straight round toward Serge and his family.

To no avail. Belatedly celebrating his 75th birthday, which was back in November, Serge was with his family, enjoying a New Year's diving expedition off Acapulco when he died in an accident.

Like Max: in the end, the horrible people never got him.

There are many winemakers currently rebelling against the bland sanitised industrial wines Australia pumps out in oceans. Max is long gone, but you can still taste the spirit of Serge. His sons Gaston (winemaking) and Marc (management) have been running the business for years, but Serge and his stylish, impish wit rise soothing from every glass.

You can buy Château Musar wines - two reds and white - through Negociants Australia. With its tickle of volatile acidity and occasional hint of brettanomycaes, the top red is very much of the style that Penfolds made in Max's day. The junior red is very modern towards the current 'natural' manner, the rich dry white verging on today's fashionable orange.

Nothing new about that sort of retro stuff on the track from Cana to Baalbeck.

The Worship Of Bacchus; George Cruikshank 1860-1862

Rough notes from a 1991 encounter with Serge

Hochar Pere et Fils 1998 village of Shazir Lebanon 13.5% second brand ... Syrah Grenache Mourvedre  ... 5% Cinsault ... Carignan and Cabernet according to the vintage, but usually approximately equal parts ... "I blend the wine each year differently" ... One year in concrete vats ... one year in new barriques (1/3 new each year) from the forest of Nevers ... no oak at all in the second wine ... [which is 5% Cinsault] ... lovely broad soft aroma like Grenache ... rich perfume ... [he's put off by the colour of this bright Oz Shiraz wine] ... this is the future of wine, where Australia gets over its Parker-driven obsession with new oak ... "It must be soft and easy drinking" ... halfway between Pinot and Gamay ... audacious and vivacious ... fleshy strawberry jam, modest but pretty and warm ... soft and lovely with extra fine-grained tannins ... 91 pts.; now 2005 ... long and fine and tapering very gently ... lovely acid

"Bekaa is one thousand metres high ... no irrigation, but enough melting snow to ensure the vines survive ... these wine are 100% natural ... we pick first the Cabernet second the Carignan, third the Cinsault.

"In the 1930s it began ... I took over in 1959 and then I was winemaker, even '58 ... I took the wine from my father on the agreement that he leave ... He had no choice, and I was only eighteen years old."

The second wine is even more delicious.

"In '75 I had a man from Bordeaux but he had to go because of the war. I taught him everything because I thought I was going to die very young. I have an oenologist from Montpelier but I am still in charge.

"We pick at an average of 14%. 3rd September to 19th October is harvest. 300 acres total.

"I extract the wine on the flavour. Not the colour. Three weeks of ferment. The tannins are competely polymerised before we begin."

"What makes the structure? Cabernet skeleton below flesh and muscles.

"Carignan is male: Merlot. Perfumed skin. Cinsault, female. Pinot.

"We can't make Syrah like here. Syrah reflects and projects Australia. It doesn't do that in my country. It is the grape of this country.

"I made no wine in '76 or '84. I couldn't harvest in '84 because the truck took five days to reach the winery and the grapes were already fermented ... they were shooting at everything that was moving ... gunfire all week ... explosions ... '91 will be great in five more years ... '81's been like this for five years."

'95 Ch Musar: more bitumen and tar. Lovely genteel leather. Pretty rose and plum perfume. Some gentle hedgerow briar. Incredible concentration and finesse; elegance and poise; high volatiles. Lovely silky wine with staunch, slender, tapering acidity and extremely fine-grained tannins Now to 10+ years. 90+ points. VA like Max loved it. "It's 1.2. On the limit."

'91 Ch Musar: softer. Some chocolate and leather. St Henri style. Smells like the back seat of a Bugatti Royale. That's the 14.7 litre one with the seven foot bonnet hinge. Who's the girl and how long ago did she leave? He laughs. "Now we are talking the same way!"  Now - 15 years. 93.

'81 Ch Musar: like old Grange: walnuts and leather. Extremely soft and opulent ... long, fading, but with wondrous length and finesse and delicious tannin structure ... integrated, composed, harmonious ...

"And now I leave the wine three months without protection in the cement tank. Third year I put them back in vats and blending is in March of third year. They are then left a year blended before they are bottled. Now the assemblage is in September - I'm shortening the time, but just experimenting.

"No fining, minimal sulphur, no filter, no treatment. So they seem to grow younger as they age."

And the 'white'? Whew! This burnished artefact is bigger than the reds.

"At 1500 metres. The origin of Semillon. And maybe Aligote. The Merwah vines are over 150 years, the Obaideh over 100. We have the reds with fish; the white with lamb."

The temple of Bacchus at Baalbeck: the Bacchus Bar!

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