Adding New Depths to Aging Wine
A new wave of winemakers is going to extraordinary depths to reach new heights in winemaking. Chris Boiling looks at the trend for aging wine underwater to see if it’s worth taking the plunge. Winemakers around the world are adding a new category of equipment to their arsenal – diving gear. We’ve found winemakers in... View Article
A new wave of winemakers is going to extraordinary depths to reach new heights in winemaking. Chris Boiling looks at the trend for aging wine underwater to see if it’s worth taking the plunge.
Winemakers around the world are adding a new category of equipment to their arsenal – diving gear. We’ve found winemakers in France, Spain, Italy, Greece, the USA, Australia, and South Africa who are submerging their wine underwater for aging. The argument is that the lack of oxygen and light underwater, the consistent cool temperature, the high pressure and the gentle agitation from the currents make the seabed and lake bottom superb places for storing wine. But what is the reality? I decided to take a look at the evidence.
Bordeaux producer Franck Labeyrie of Château du Coreau in Haux was so impressed with the results of experiments he conducted in 2012 that he has set up an underwater cellaring service for anyone who wants to pay €17 per bottle per year to submerge their wine in a trackable reinforced stainless steel box 150km offshore. With the help of marine maintenance company Jifmar Offshore Services, he has put two of these boxes on the seabed at a depth of 1,000m. One contains 600 bottles of Château du Coureau’s red and sweet wines and the other is available for part-hire.
Franck says: “The stable temperature, the absence of light and the lack of oxygen can play a very positive role in wine aging.” He is also excited about its possible role in producing sulphite-free wines. “If undersea stored wines do not get oxidised, one could imagine a sulphite-free wine,” he says. Franck also puts bottles of his Graves, a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, in oyster baskets and submerges them 8m underwater in Arcachon Bay. He sells three bottles of this Blanc des Cabanes for €45.
French sommelier Manuel Peyrondet, one of the first to taste the submerged Graves, called it “a new-style wine with marked aromatic flavours”. He added: “From experience we already know that wines which mature in large, cool cellars have more panache than other wines. This could be the case here.” He said on the nose he could detect “a slight salinity and also a vegetal, menthol note”, while in the mouth “the grape variety is less emphasised in the submerged sample but the wine is more subtle and has more length”.
Another, more well-known, Bordeaux producer experimenting with undersea aging in Arcachon Bay is Château Larrivet Haut-Brion, which teamed up with respected barrel-maker Radoux to put oak barrels underwater. Using a specially-made 56L barrel sheathed in a concrete chamber that allowed some seawater to flow in and out and for the barrel to rotate, they sank a 2009 Merlot-Cabernet blend for six months. It wasn’t submerged very deep and was partially exposed to air for about an hour a day during the lowest tides (about 25-30 times during the test period).
After the wine was tested in 2012 and compared to wine from an identical barrel that had been aged in the château’s cellars, French wine expert Bernard Burtschy declared: “It was much better than it should have been.” The barrel kept at the cellar in Leognan, named Tellus after the Roman goddess of the land, had a more youthful colour and better polymerization of tannins but was rather disappointing. On the other hand, the barrel kept in the sea for six months, and called Neptune after the sea god, was more complex and intense, with softer tannins. Laboratory analysis showed the wine had lost some of its alcohol and gained some salt which Burtschy said brought out the best of the blend’s rich tannins. He also pointed out: “In ancient times the Romans used to add a little saltwater to their wine.”
For Bruno Lemoine, Château Larrivet Haut-Brion director, the interesting thing will be to see how Neptune evolves over the coming decade. “We’ve tasted it at a particular point in time,” he said. “But you need to see how the wine evolves over a longer period.” However, he is sufficiently impressed to be considering immersing another barrel into the local oyster beds sometime this year.
Treasure of Sunken Abbey
A couple of wineries in the Languedoc wine region, Chateau Champs des Soeurs and Abbaye Sainte Eugenie, have also taken the plunge to see if the lobster in The Little Mermaid film was right when he sang: “It’s better down where it’s wetter.” They have been putting bottles into the harbour at Gruissan.
Laurent Maynardier who runs Château Champs des Soeurs with his wife, Marie, gave Denis Sergent, technical manager for synthetic cork maker Nomacorc, two bottles of Corbieres blanc to try. One had been kept in the winery’s cellar in Fitou and the other had been deposited in an oyster bed in the Mediterranean for three months.
“It was amazing. I thought the guy was showing me two completely different wines,” said Denis. “The white wine that had spent three months underwater was clearly better. It had these yellow-green glints and a nose of citrus and grapefruit. The wine that had stayed in the cellar had none of that.”
Laurent conducted a second trial, sinking both red and white wines to a depth of 20m for six months. “It was too long for his white wine,” said Denis. “There were more reductive aromas, which are swampy and cabbage-like. But the red wine aged underwater for six months was fresher, more complex and very, very beautiful. The tannins weren’t as mature, but the aromas were fresh.”
One of the most interesting ‘aging wine underwater’ experiments in France is being carried out in the sunken ruins of the Chartreuse de Vaucluse, a 12th century abbey in the Jura region of eastern France. 276 bottles of local wine were laid there by 12 divers in May 2008, 50 years after the abbey was deliberately flooded during the construction of a huge dam. The abbey is now 60m underwater.
The wine, a mixture of locally-produced white, red, yellow, straw and sparkling, is stored there – at a temperature of 4