The SeaHorse winery is located in moshav Bar Giyora. Seahorse is Suson Yam in hebrew, Suson meaning small horse and Yam, sea. We reach the moshav after driving along a very scenic road through the Judean hills [picture on left], a narrow canyon-like valley bordered with lots of trees and rocks.
The collective-farm community was founded by Yemenite jews in the 1950s'. Ze'eve Dunie, the man behind the Seahorse winery is one of these decisive actors who took part in the early years when small, qualitative wineries sprouted all over Israel.
When we arrived at the winery, a young family was leaving the winery after a visit. The Seahorse winery grounds are far from being neatly arranged and landscaped like some other more commercial wineries. There is no tasting room and the lot in front of the facility (a former chicken farm) is quite messy and grassy, but Ze'ev Dunie doesn't care too much about these secondary details. This man, who didn't enter the wine world through an enology school and wasn't backed by wealthy investors, fell for the Israeli wine while shooting a documentary about wine in Israel. He has studied film making in California in the 1970s' and worked for TV in New York, which led him to Israel for a story about wineries there. That's when he got the virus. A personality who follows his own intuitions and doesn't hesitate to go against the wine trends, he makes a wine range with cuvées that respond to names like Lennon, Camus or Antoine [de Saint Exupery] in homage to authors and artists that he admires.
__White wine 2008, our guess what it is. 8 months in barrels. Cuvée named James, for Ronnie James, the man who set up a winery in kibbutz Tzora, a first of its kind. The nose makes me think to a Sauvignon. Wrong, this is a Chenin Blanc grown on the coastal plain near Gedera on vineyards he doesn't own. Aromatic round wine. Pear, even ripe pear aromas. Good acidity level, a very pleasant mouth with wood notes. He used old barrels (one year or more) for the elevage.
He had been looking for growing Chenin Blanc after a trip in South Africa where they make excellent Chenin Blanc wines. He found this guy who was growing Chenin Blanc. This grower, who had a long experience as a grower behind him, was being abused by the purchasing winery, he had soon a good understanding with Ze'ev Dunie and he sold him his grapes. This is the 2nd vintage, the 1st one was a pilot vintage, sort of, with two barrels : they marked the rows and he cut down the grapes. Chenin can make big yields, that's why originally people planted Chenin Blanc here. Now, being 35 years old, this vineyards gives only 2 tons of grapes per dunam (20 tons per hectare) instead of the 4 tons of the beginning, and it is still a high yield. Together with the grower, they put the yields down to 700 kilos through green harvest. It makes 2800 kilograms per acre or something like 7 tons (of grapes, not juice) per hectare. That make yields of about 35 hectoliter/hectare on the European counting scale. Once they reduced the yields dramatically, the quality improved a lot; actually, according to the grower, this was the 1st time that the grapes reached full maturity. Before, they were harvested at 22 bricks and now on they could reach 25 bricks at harvest, with 14° alcohol. Not that the alcohol is important he says, but now for him, he has a perfect fruit to make wine. He says that white wine is often considered as an easy drinking wine without much expectations, but when people come across a great white wine, they feel the difference. You have to know that single-variety Chenin Blanc is unheard of in Israel, the variety has a bad name here because it was a high-yield associate for white blends.
At one point, I spot a very simple gravity filler on the side. He uses it to fill the bottles from the cask, it is very gentle on the wine and the small size of his production allows it. Yesterday, he says, he bottled two barrels this way. An automatic machine like the one used by big wineries bottles in one hour what he makes in one day. For the white wine though, he decided to use an automatic machine because on such machines, the air is sucked out, it is very important for the whites. In theory, it helps him use less sulphur but he works with low SO2 doses anyway. That was the 1st time he used such a machine, he was a bit anxious but it went smoothly. He hired an external bottler, one of these companies which come with a truck and everything. You just have to have enough people to feed the machine and other people to take out the bottles.
__Red blend 2007. From a cask, will be bottled in two or three weeks. Cuvée named Antoine, and this is the 2nd year that he makes this blend : a Rhone blend, Syrah (72%), Grenache and Mourvèdre (about 14% each). Strong encense aromas, eucalyptus. Nice structure, this wine is like food ! Probably the blend will be changed a bit in the coming months, with more Grenache and less Mourvèdre. Aged in Burgundy barrels, the Syrah goes every year in used barrels from Castel and which had contained Chardonnay before. To explain why he does that, he says that he didn't have formal wine education, he learnt from speaking with winemakers here and there. What he learned as an autodidact is that it is important to treat each variety as a different fruit. He says that usually there are two floating charts, one for the reds one for the whites, as if each color should have a fixed set of rules. But when you work with a given variety, you begin to sense the differences and the needs of a particular fruit. For the barrels, you can't put a Syrah in new oak. The Israeli Syrah is gentle and with new oak you'll feel only oak in the wine. When he looked for used barrels, he found the only available ones in the vicinity to be Chardonnay's at Castel. He made an experiment at that time : part of the syrah into a red barrel, part into these Chardonnay's barrels, and the rest (origin of the grapes, vinification) was the same. When he tasted the result, he preferred the white barrel's, it had another dimension that the other one lacked. From that point on, he put every year in Syrah in white used barrels. What he looks for is elegance, and this wine brought more of it.
This Syrah is grown organic on the Gyora vineyard, planted very dense which makes low yields (5 tons of grapes per hectare or 30 hectoliter/hectare) without having to cut down grapes. They prune like two eyes that'sall. He harvests on the weekend with Thai people who work in the area to do the hand picking. The fruit is brought in in black boxes and sorted. Crusher, stainless steel, no pumping over but punch down. Usually it's over after 7 days, he leaves it another 7 days. Temp control : only by the air of the vatroom which is at 16° at this time, no system in the vats. He adds cultural yeasts for the fermentation. Manual emptying of the solid parts to the wood basket press. Then, settling down in a tank and after 3-4 weeks, to the barrels. May do spontaneously the malolactic fermentation there [that's when he listens to the fermentation in the cask of a Syrah 2008 : the wine still faintly bubbles]. 14 to 18 months in casks. the first 6 months, every variety is by itself, the blends are made later after trials in bottles and he makes his choice from these samples. He may makes a fine-tuning of this 1st blend later, like he did for this particular wine. No enzymes, tannins or other additive.
__2007 cask, prototype (2 casks of it). Another Rhone blend, Syrah, Grenache. Before, in the other Rhone blend, the majority was Syrah, here it is Grenache (60%). Very elegant nose. Complex notes of ripe fruits and spices. Comes from this area, the Jerusalem mountains. He says that this country is its very beginning as for winemaking and that "we" have a lot to learn on how places, micro-climate, soils can yields such or such wines. His gut feeling is that Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre are the right varieties for the Judean hills, the Jerusalem mountains. He is prudent and careful, saying that it is his own feeling. He convinced a grower he knows to plant Syrah in Karem Benzema 4 years ago where nobody grows it. This year will be the 1st harvest and he will know then and compare how Syrah from the north compares with this one here.
The Grenache grapes were not easy to find. They were looking for Grenaxhe Noir and there was none around. In Tzuba they has 0,5 hectare of Grenache and he wanted to take the cuttings to graft roots here, but the agricultural administration said noway because of disease risk etc... He found since then last year what he wanted, from another, legal source and had his roots grafted (0,4 hectare). He will have his own Grenache harvested in 2011 and until then convinced Tzuba to sell him their Grenache (they didn't really know what to do with it anyway). From day one it was his choice to look for Rhone blends because first he loves Chateauneuf du Pape, and it happened thatIsrael wineries are more on Bordeaux blends, and it makes him against the trend.
About the Petite Syrah, he discovered it in 2002 by coincidence : Somebody wanted to sell him Merlot and as they were driving across the vineyard with a grower, he saw the Petite Syrah vineyard, a curiously looking one, he had the car stopped in spite of the grower waving off the vineyard as uninteresting. After looking at the vineyard, he said, forget the Merlot, I'll take this Petite Syrah. Nobody was interested by this variety in Israel then (except Margalit with his special reserve and its 15% P.S.). From then on, Petite Syrah played the role of a spice adding in his wine, because of its intensity. Zinfandel is flowery dress blowing in the wind and Petite Syrah is the gaunt, he says. This vineyard is not irrigated, that why the vines looked strange. Some people ask for 100% P.S. and he sold some even if it's not his thing, he prefers to blend it. Of course it's nice as a single variety, but there is no elegance involved.
__100% Petite Syrah 2007, that's it ! Very dark, powerful. One barrel only, almost two years in wood. Bottled possibly next week. Sold in futures and everything is gone...You really eat tannins here, but with food I think it can make a very good job. Aromas of eucalyptus, Pivoine (in French). 5% of this makes it easy in a blend, that's the way he likes it.
He owns 3 hectares of vineyards, half of them only are producing grapes. The rest is purchased. On the purchasing side, some bigger wineries sometimes "steal" his grapes, they give more money to the grower and he looses some plots. Business as usual, seen from France...