WWC21 – SeaHorse, Israel

WWC21 Dunia Z - old Chenin vines in Israel

Ze'ev Dunie is the author of the second 2021 writing competition entry to be published. He writes: 'Owner and winemaker at SeaHorse winery. My formal education and work was in film. I have produced and directed a documentary film about wine in Israel in 1994/5. The winery was established in the year 2000, in the village of Bar Giyora. The winery and vineyards are located in the Jerusalem mountain, at 700 meters high. This is a sub area of the Judean Hills, which has become recently the first official wine appellation in Israel. In the 21 years of Seahorse winery I have concentrated on less popular grape varieties, in Israel. Pioneering with Zinfandel, the Rhone varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedrè, Cinsault and Counuise. And finally, as described in the attached story, Chenin Blanc. In recent years I have moved towards spontaneous fermentation, relying on the natural yeasts, which inhabit the organic vineyard in Bar Giyora. SeaHorse produces around 45,000 bottles annually.' See our WWC21 guide for more old-vine competition entries. 

Early in 2007 I found myself on a flight from Tel-Aviv to Cape Town. It was my first visit to South Africa and I was looking forward to meeting with Micu, a Jazz musician and a dear friend whom I hadn't seen for quite sometimes. In the weeks before my flight I had done some homework on South African wines, of which I knew very little. On Berry Brother’s on-line catalogue, I came across a winery named The Sadie Family. It seemed like "my type of winery". I wrote them an email, which was answered by Eben Sadie. An appointment was made, and that is how the rebirth of Chenin Blanc started in Israel. 

After a few days in the Cape Town area, Micu and I headed to the Sadie winery. We arrived at 10 O'clock sharp, because Eben informed me in advance he would only have 2 hours to spend with us. We talked and we tasted wines from the barrels. I asked questions which Eben answered. 12 noon came quickly. I reminded Eben about his upcoming appointment. He smiled and said it was only an informal lunch at his house with a couple of friends, and he invited us to join. We accepted the invitation. I found myself talking to three S.A winemakers over lunch. I expressed my enthusiasm with Chenin Blanc, which I had tasted for the first time during those past days. I must have said something like: "I have no experience in making white wine, but if the day will come, it will most likely be Chenin Blanc". The gentleman sitting opposite me said in a rather clam manner: "When that day comes, let me know. I'll come to Israel and help you out". I stared at him speechlessly. He smiled and went on: “you don't need to pay me. Just have a bed ready" … As we walked out, Micu asked me if I knew who that gentleman was. I had no idea. It turned to be Teddy Hall, one of S.A top winemakers. 

WWC21 Dunie Z - old Chenin vines in Israel

Six months or so later, Teddy arrived in Israel. But there was work to be done, before that. Upon my arrival home from Cape Town, I started to search for Chenin Blanc vineyards. Finally, I found one, in the coastal plains and it had a very unusual story. The owner told me that the vineyard was planted in the mid-seventies, so the vines were about 33 years old. He was selling the fruit for… grape juice. Quite a big industry – so I learned. But the worst was yet to come: That year would have been the last harvest. He was planning to uproot the vineyard, because the yields were coming down. A common practice in Israel in those days. He was not sure yet what he was going to replant it with. Perhaps with a different fruit tree altogether. Whatever the market would suggest… Somehow, perhaps by divine intervention, he was willing to set aside 6 rows for me. "Make your wine, and we'll see what happens". He went as far as disconnecting the drip irrigation, which supply plenty of water for the grapes intended for grape juice. It was, after all, about money, and he got paid by weight. The six dry-farmed rows, produced merely 800 KG, which in turn, was barely enough for two barrels… 

I sent Teddy frequent reports on the maturation of the Chenin Blanc. Everything was developing quite normally, and Teddy booked his airline tickets. Then, one day came a strange email. Teddy asked where he could get kosher food. One should realize that almost all supermarkets in Israel sell only kosher food. If you are looking for Pork or seafood, you have to go out of your way to find it. "What's the story, Teddy?" I've asked. As it turned out, Teddy, out of free will, choose Judaism as his preferred religion. (This "adventure" ended a few years later). He used to drive 2 hours, from his hometown in S.A to reach a kosher butcher…

Teddy, his wife and daughter, arrived in Israel about 10 days after the harvest. He pulled his rented car into my driveway, we shook hands, and he immediately asked: "Where is the wine?" We went to the cellar where 2 Chenin Blanc barrels were fermenting. He smelled at the fermenting juice, tasted it and said: "It's all right. Exactly as it should be at this stage". 

In the following days, we spent hours talking. He explained many things to me about Chenin Blanc, and about his religion. A point to emphasize: my wine isn't Kosher. Never has been, never will be. But that wasn't a problem, at all.

Nine months later, the wine was bottled. Another fact that I should point out is that at that time (2008) there were no Chenin Blanc wines in Israeli wine stores. None at all, neither imported nor local. The guys in the wine shops had not heard about this grape variety. With that in mind, I wondered how to sell the 600 bottles that were produced. To my great surprise, the wine "flew" off the shelves in no time. One restaurant in Jerusalem bought half of what was produced.

The time had arrived to talk again to the grower. He told me he would consider not uprooting the vineyard if I would commit to buying the grapes from the entire 1.5 hectares. That was a "big" decision. Seahorse, my winery, was extremely small at that time, producing only 10,000 bottles of red wines. The total amount of Chenin Blanc grapes would produce the equivalent of 5,500 Bottles and, mind you: Chenin Blanc was completely unknown to the local consumer. There was really no choice. I could either shake hands with the grower and commit myself to that vineyard, or it would be uprooted. What option was there….? 

I worked with that vineyard for the following ten years. I spent many hours in the company of "the Old Ladies" – that is what I used to call the vines. They were beautiful. The sight was absolutely unique in Israel, and I was proud to have saved that vineyard. 

Dunie's beautiful 'Old Ladies'
Dunie's beautiful 'Old Ladies'

Chenin Blanc has come a long way since my first vintage of 2007. There are at least a dozen local wineries which now grow and produce Chenin Blanc in Israel, not to mention the large number of imported brands. Seahorse's Chenin Blanc has become the fastest selling wine of all my wines.

The grower has since retired, and the vineyard has been leased to a large winery, who was willing to pay more. A sad moment for me, but I managed to overcome it. Personally I'm convinced that my task was to rescue that vineyard. I was sent by the heavens to S.A to meet Eben Sadie and Teddy Hall. There was a "hidden mission" for me…

I now grow my own Chenin Blanc, in Seashore's organic vineyard. The village of Bar Giyora, located up in the Jerusalem Mountains at an elevation of 700 meters. Although young, this vineyard, which I have planted in a high density of 5,500 vines per hectare, has a completely different soul. It encouraged me to give up using cultured yeast, and rely on the natural yeast which thrives here. But that is another story altogether.  

I think I am quite at peace, in that regard. I did what I was supposed to do.   

The photographs have all been provided by Ze'ev Dunie.