Revisiting Sea Horse

It's easy to romanticize Sea Horse. It is a small boutique winery run by a man with an artistic past and a philosophical bent, who is not only interested in making wines but in working the land and growing grapes. He works his ass off for his wines and he's constantly trying to find the best ways to express himself.

But recent encounters with Ze'ev Dunie's wines have left a bitter taste (in more ways than one) and now I must ask myself: are good intentions enough?

The best way to document my palate's struggle with Sea Horse is to list my notes over the past couple of years. Obviously, this will reflect my own evolution rather than any changes in the Sea Horse style, but that's why it's my blog, not Dunie's. :)

Antoine, 2003

'Homegrown' Syrah whereas the Camus is made of bought grapes.

Nice acidity for a change. Starts off with a blast of raspberries and VA on the nose and lots of sulphur and acid on the palate. The nose grows more complex and fleshes out to show earth, wild berries, red cherries and in general a complex array of red fruits and peaks after about 2 hours to add some black fruits and spices (lots of black pepper) to the mix. As the sulphur subsides, the palate reveals a tannic, medium-full body and a long, lingering finish. It’s still a little flat and backwards at times, but is still drinking nicely with cherries, anise and, on the finish, some leather; I’m fairly certain it will complexify. Wait a bit for my next bottle. (Nov 26, 2005)

The following, dismal note seems to have been caused by bottle variation. I'm sure Sea Horse would have replaced the bottle but that wouldn't have helped here. The bottle was opened at a group tasting and, since it wasn't obviously corky, poured after about an hour. Thus, no bottle to return to the winery but on the other hand, some fourteen negative opinions.

Very disappointing. Fruity, simple nose. Flat, lacking in acidity. (Feb 7, 2006)

A return to form. Sort of. I was still scoring wines and the score for the this note was lower than for the first. And in retropsect, I think a year would be enough to see where this wine is going, if at all.

A nice nose of sweet red fruit (cranberries and cherries) and pepper, later some chocolate. The palate has decent structure, the acidity is okay, but the fruit is still subdued, so it feels a bit tart which is fine, most Israeli reds will just go the other way. But it gets better and reveals sour-cherry fruitiness and hints of minerals on the finish. Mostly it’s just subdued right now with some hollowness in mid-palate. I’d open the next bottle in a year, maybe even two. (Jan 10, 2007)

Antoine, 2004 (from a special barrel selected by Ben Kfir and Doron Omer in their role as part-time, non-profit, negociants)

This is one of the best wines I've had from Sea Horse but then Ben and Doron's choices have been special so far.

Sweet and ripe, chocolate-y black fruit, spicy oak, a little brett. Pretty good despite the youth, less foursquare than the last couple of Sea Horses I’ve had. Opens nicely and the spicy oak is replaced by cigar box aromas. More drinkable than I’d have thought (but I did pick the bottle with the lowest ullage for my experiment) and quite delicious and elegant. Reminds me of what I liked about Flam, without being carried by brett. (Apr 9, 2007)

Antoine, Tete de Cuvee, 2004

Another good wine.

Plummy and bretty and actually quite tasty for a change, smooth with relatively balanced acidity that still manages to leave a very faint burn down the throat. There are oaky notes that creep up every now and then, but that’s fine, this is still the best wine I’ve ever had from Sea Horse and it reminds me of a modern Ribera del Duero. It’s just too damn ready now and given my recent heartbreaks with Sea Horse I plan to open my next bottle within a year. (May 1, 2007)

Camus, 2002

I have quite a few notes for the Camus. As can be seen, my experiences have been rather erratic.

An intriguing nose in that it kept shifting its accents: at times (red-) fruity and floral, other times peppery, smoky and chcocolatey and at times spicy-meaty. The palate is less fleshed out: soft tannins, tangy, acidity reminescent of cherries and licorice. Medium-bodied with a medium-long finish. Starts bitter and ends sour-sweet. (Sep 21, 2004)

I was not as impressed this time. The nose leaned more towards a candied aspect with some smokiness. Very fruity-licoricy. Medium bodied, smooth, very ready to drink. I’m not sure it has any potential for improvement. (Oct 19, 2004)

The nose and palate are wonderfully nuanced with spices and hints of meat and later on, chocolate. All the Syrah/Shiraz stuff. It’s not a great wine but the way it develops in the glass makes it a wonderful companion. I don’t think it has enough tannins to last too long but I will hang on to my remaining bottle for a year to satisfy my curiousity. (Dec 22, 2004)

Still a youthful, purple color. On the nose, red and black cherries, currants, roast, chocolate and finally some coffee and olives. Medium-bodied, very soft tannins by now, fair length and acidity. Didn’t gain a lot of complexity in bottle. (Dec 12, 2005)

Elul 2001

Elul is the flagship wine, a Cabernet based blend with a Syrah element as well.

An elegant nose of sweet cherries, nuts, leather and spices. Soft, smooth tannins, medium-bodied, bitter-spicy finish with a medium-length aftertaste. Fresh and vibrant due to the good acidity, the tannins are smooth and the oak is not intrusive. (Mar 11, 2004)

Another sign of bottle variation.

Well, this isn’t a development since the last time I had the Elul 2001 so much as it is almost a different wine. When I had it over a year and a half ago, it was soft and seemed to be at the start of a peak plateau. This time, it seemed a year short of its peak. Dark deep color, ripe black currants on the nose, with some coffee and chocolate, toast, later developing hints of flowers and characoal and finally some sweat and leather. The fruit’s ripeness is thankfully not followed up on the palate as much. This full-bodied, tannic wine shows a very crisp, minerally finish, though the ripeness is evident on the mid-palate. Really good after 2-2.5 hours. (oct 10, 2005)

Elul 2002

Alcoholic and big. Black fruits, alcohol, chocolate and earth on the nose. Spicy and tannic on the palate. A very interesting and vibrant wine; drinking well but unravels after a couple of hours. (May 9, 2006)

Earthy and brooding. Muscular body. Fairly long and backward. Black ripe fruits, almost compote-y, chocolate. Kind of an oddball, it’s not very structured and despite the ripeness, it’s tough and austere. (Oct 23, 2006)

Elul 2002 (from Ben and Doron's selection)

Again proving Ben and Doron 'steal' the best stuff from Ze'ev.

Opaque. Exotic, ripe but not jammy. Not typical Israeli CS as the nose and palate is full of cherries and licorice. Took 3 hours to fully open and show spices, some smoke and meat. Nice structure and length that is marred by high alcohol on the finish. Wait a year or two for my second bottle (but I’d try the regular bottling first). (Jan 29, 2006)

The nose starts out currants, earth and spices and gets better and more complex in time. The palate is alcoholic, oaky and foursquare - in a nice way I suppose but not up to the quality of the nose. Doesn’t quite live up to its promise of a year ago. (Feb 15, 2007)

Elul 2003

I have mixed feelings about this wine. First, the nose: rich and OVER ripe and even after it calms down, its aesthetic value is questionable. The palate has a nice structure and, though it is overoaked, it is at least savoury and spicy with an anise finish. But its texture is rough, almost like chewing stone. Not for the faint of heart and I’m not enamored of its lack of finesse but I do like the spicy anise on the finish. I’d give even odds on its potential to improve over, say, a year. (Mar 23, 2007)

The second bottle was not even as good as the one I had the misgivings about. Very over-ripe, perfumed like a harlot, with the palate relatively balanced compared to the nose, but not very interesting. And it’s rough, almost like chewing gravel, without even the notion of good fruit lurking in the background. We returned to the wine at the end of the evening yet all that time breathing the air in the bottle had left no positive mark on the sorry juice. (Apr 21, 2007)

Elul 2004

Intense, spicy, earthy currant aromas, with a hint of jams. Full bodied and quite long, with a bitter, granite like finsih. I think a lot of its presence is barrel derived FX which overwhelm the fruit right now. Not exactly balanced, it’s high in alcohol even for an Israeli red. The 2003 tasted the same a year older but is a year enough to make a difference? (May 8, 2007)

Munch, 2003

This is Sea Horse's Petit Syrah and perhaps my biggest disappointment.

The darkest wine I’ve ever seen. The nose is ripe black fruits (cherries, plums), meat, herbs, baked earth. The palate is tannic and very young, yet balanced, full-bodied, very fruity in a brooding way with enough acidity to balance all that ripe fruit. This is a big wine, with an earthy finish. (Feb 28, 2006)

Very flat and bleh the first day, so I poured the first glass back and tried again the next day. I liked it much more the first time, almost a year ago, but now, well, the nose shows some promise , showing some nice black fruits, spices and chocolate through a haze of oak, but the palate is not especially interesting or enticing and is tannic and harsh without enough fruit to back it up. But two days after THAT, the nose shows smokey-meaty notes to complement the chocolate and the palate is actually somewhat fresher and it really comes alive. Not great by any means but a very nice wine in a sort of grungy-rustic style. (Dec 24, 2006)

I must admit I don't fully understand Ze'ev's wines. I usually give the Israeli reds in my fridge their first test run at three to four years post harvest. I think that though they might gain tasty nuances of bottle maturity after that, they will usually be as drinkable at that age as they will ever be. At that age, the flagship Elul has been bitter, alcoholic and harsh; the image I have is of chewing rocks. The Syrah based wines have been clearly better but despite their charm, display a lack of finesse. I suspect that to some extent, all his wines derive a certain harsh, dense texture from barrel treatments and not from dense, tannic fruit. And the bottle variations I've experienced have been very worrying, forcing me to prefer to open my bottles earlier rather than later.


Anonymous said…
Hi Chaim,

Interesting post and well described notes. I just have one commet regarding the last paragraph, I think most of these wines are intented to be consumed rather young, or at 1-2 years post release, and keeping (some of) them longer may be a good gamble on one hand, but might also be expecting them to be something they're not (not yet, at least).

I give Sea Horse's wines credit for originality and uniqueness in the local scene, not obeying the common merlot-cab-shiraz structure a lot of wineries fall into. As for aging potential, it can (sometimes) improve over time.

2GrandCru said…
Lior hi,

I have to agree about the aging potential. I guess I was over-optimistic in the past and mis-led by the claims of the winery and sme of the reviews its wines had received.