Inside the Watery World of Wine Aged on the Bottom of the Sea
Move aside, space whiskey. Winemakers are exploring unusual techniques in the hopes of producing better wine, and that includes storing their precious bottles in a watery grave.
Photo courtesy of Mira Winery.
We live in a world where people are sending beer and whiskey into space to see if it tastes any better, so it should come as no surprise that winemakers are exploring unusual techniques in the hopes of producing better wine. While some turn to flavor and color additives and reverse osmosis, a few—including the blue chip Champagne house Veuve Clicquot—are thinking that they might find an edge under the sea, where the absence of light and relatively constant temperatures offer an aging environment not unlike a traditional cave, but with a few x-factors.
Many wines stored underwater are capped with wax to prevent seepage and the ingress of ocean water, but for those that aren't, some say that wines stored in salt water can have a slight salinity to them due to a subtle osmosis effect between the bottle or barrel and the surrounding waters. Pressure at the bottom of the ocean, after all, is far greater than on land. Oxygen is also scarcer down there, meaning less will enter into the wine. Others posit that the gentle rolling of the waves and tides massages extra character into a young wine, developing the maturity of something older. Producers have built special submersible cages, barrels, and—perhaps drawing inspiration from the Greeks who often lost their wine to Poseidon—amphorae to stand up to the elements.
Some hope to capture the magic of the sea inside the bottle. Others take a more scientific approach, planning to study the effects of what happens to wine under different conditions. And at least one put it there out of expediency: an Italian Riviera winemaker ran out of storage space and dropped his sparkling to the bottom. But no one knows with certainty what happens down there, and skeptics have suggested that aging wine underwater is merely a good way to get attention.
The idea of underwater aging might sound farfetched, but a select few were already aware of the sometimes-excellent quality of wine that's spent time under the sea. As wine traversed the oceans in the past, the transport ships that carried it were subject to the dangers of seafaring—storms and wars alike. Sadly for sailors but luckily for wealthy oenophiles today, when ships sank, the ships and their cargo ended up on the ocean floor, where they have sat undisturbed. That is, until divers found the wine, brought it up, and auctioned it off.
Paul Roberts, a Master Sommelier and former wine director for the Thomas Keller Group who now is the chief operating officer at Colgin Cellars in Napa, has tasted some excellent shipwrecked wines. In the late 90s, while serving as the wine director at Houston's Café Annie, he bought some Champagne at auction that had been recovered from a shipwreck in the cold waters off the coast of Scandinavia. He purchased two bottles of 1907 Heidsieck Monopole for around $2,500 and, impressed by its quality, sold it at Café Annie.
"It had incredible richness. It was tangy, it was still alive. There was caramel. Not many bubbles," Roberts tells me. "It tasted like a great old white Burgundy made from chardonnay."
This past March, Roberts was part of a panel of experts who tasted a bottle of wine recovered from an 1864 shipwreck off the coast of Bermuda. The ship in question, the Mary-Celestia, had been a Confederate blockade runner, and on its last trip it never made it through a Union line—it sank before it could even try, after hitting a reef. Five bottles of wine were found in 2011 after a hurricane exposed a previously unearthed part of the well-known wreck; one was tasted in Charleston this year.
It should be said that part of the appeal of shipwrecked wine, like vintage spirits, is that it looks cool. The glass has fogged, it can be barnacled and covered in splotches, and it generally looks like it's been through one hell of an ordeal. It's a time capsule from an era gone by. That such a historic vessel can contain something drinkable, let alone enjoyable, seems impossible; a good wine that's endured the experience becomes all the more remarkable.
But this year's assembled panel didn't encounter such a bottle. "When we decanted it," Roberts recalls, "the cork pretty much crumbled and you immediately knew the vast majority was now ocean water." Their tasting notes for the grey liquid that emerged included "crab water" and "gasoline."
Very, very few wines kept under the best conditions would ever make it to 150 years with any integrity, but the wine from the Mary-Celestia never had a chance. The relatively shallow water in Bermuda, where the bottles were found, is too warm.
"The two storage parameters that typically have the greatest effect on wine chemistry (and thus wine sensory) are temperature and oxygen," Dr. Gavin Sacks, an associate professor in the department of food science at Cornell University who studies how pre- and post-harvest factors affect wine, tells me in an email. "Chemical reactions occur faster at higher storage temperatures."
However, very generally speaking, the types of reactions that occur at higher temperatures lead to undesirable flavors, so you can't age wine in your oven overnight. The 55-degrees Fahrenheit cellar rule of thumb allows wine to age naturally, with chemical reactions happening just right. Those reactions occur more slowly at low temperatures, and to make sure that there will be minimal changes between when a wine is produced and when he studies it in his lab, Sacks stores wine at a near-freezing temperature. He says that one of the reasons shipwreck wines from cold climates are interesting is that they were stored for such long periods at such cold temperatures, allowing for changes to develop slowly.
Such was the case with the Champagne Roberts had pulled from off the coast of Scandinavia, as well as for another trove of 170-year old Champagne pulled from a shipwreck in the Baltic in 2010. Experts who tasted the less-bubbly Champagne (CO2 crept out around the cork over time) were amazed by its quality nearly two centuries on. The market expressed similar interest—one bottle sold at auction for $156,000.
Among the 168 bottles pulled in 2010 were 48 bottles of Veuve Clicquot, dating from 1839 to 1841. Inspired by the find, Veuve Clicquot has recently begun a 40-year "Cellar in the Sea" aging experiment nearby, almost 140 feet down in minus-15-degree Fahrenheit waters. That deep, the water is still and oxygen levels are low. Periodically, bottles will be pulled from the specially designed submerged cage, which does not allow for bottle motion, and compared with a twin set of bottles aging in Veuve Clicquot's caves. The house expects the biggest difference to be the amount of oxygen the bottles are exposed to.
But not every winery aims for such long-term goals. Some of those who have tasted wine aged underwater in France and Italy for months or just a few years have claimed that the wines have a more mature flavor profile than the same wine aged for the same amount of time traditionally.
Mira, a winery in Napa, is the only American wine producer to experiment with underwater aging. Mira has twice dropped cases of its 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon 60 feet to the bottom of Charleston harbor in South Carolina. As for why the Napa winery chose Charleston, Jim "Bear" Dyke Jr., the president of Mira, says that for their short-term experiments, the harbor offers the right temperature range of between 52 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, he hails from there originally.
"We started wondering if anybody had challenged the traditional aging process," Dyke says. "Everybody puts it in the warehouse at 55 degrees because the French told us to."
Mira submerges its wine in wire mesh cages, with bottles tied to wooden slats inside the cage that are not held tightly in place. It's a heavily tidal area, so as water flows through the cage, there's a degree of motion for the bottles as the slats shift around. The bottles are capped with wax to prevent seawater from getting in.
When Mira removed the bottles from the cages after three months—the water starts to warm up in May, and then hurricane season starts—Dyke, a sommelier, and Mira winemaker Gustavo Gonzales found that the wine had been transformed, compared to similar bottles stored on land.
"The sommelier said, 'You're geniuses. You've turned a 2009 into a 2007 in three months," Dyke says.
Mira tried the experiment again with bottles of chardonnay. Recognizing the potential effect that water can have on its taste profile, it named the wine Aquaoir, like terroir. Bottles sold for $500 for two, compared to around $50 for the same wine aged on land. They took the wine on a seven-city blind-tasting tour, during which attendees tasted both the Aquaoir and the same wine aged on land. Dyke claims that 99 percent of people who tasted the two wines said they were different.
There was a lot of speculation as to why. Was it tidal motion, slight variations in temperature, zero light, or 100-percent humidity? Dyke wonders if the fact that the water was a bit warmer for the last two weeks of the experiment—up to 68 degrees Fahrenheit—had anything to do it. At a slightly higher temperature for a short period time, maybe there could be something like sped-up aging.
Roberts speculates that wine stored underwater could be subjected to tidal motions that affect a wine's tannins, and that variances in temperature might advance a wine's aging. However, he says, there's a difference between aging quickly and aging gracefully. A chemical examination found the submerged and land-aged wines to be virtually identical, save for increased turbidity for the submerged wine.
Mira hopes to continue to explore the effects of aging wine underwater, and Dyke underscores that what is learned is ultimately going to be used to better on-land aging techniques. For now, he simply wants to know more. "We make fantastic wine," Dyke says, noting that people often mistakenly think Mira puts all of its wine underwater. "This is not a, 'Let's put crap in the ocean and see if we can make it drinkable' deal."
Any new discoveries will have to wait, however. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau got wind of Mira's experiment and, after consulting the FDA, concluded that, despite wax caps, wines aged underwater "have been held under unsanitary conditions whereby they may have become contaminated with filth or may have been rendered injurious to health."
Dyke says that his chemical analysis showed the wines were not compromised and points out that people eat seafood pulled from the Charleston harbor all the time, but for now Mira's hands are tied while they pursue an appeal. Mira can't sell or produce Aquaoir for consumption, so questions remained unanswered and those hoping to taste the magic of the sea will have to wait. Fortunately, there's no shortage of excellent wine aged traditionally.
"The wine business is constantly having new devices and new little trinkets introduced where people come along and say, 'You take your great cabernet and you pour it into this little device, and it goes through all these air chambers and it tastes like it's been aged for ten years," Roberts says. He hasn't yet had the opportunity to try wine aged purposefully underwater, and is interested to see how the government responds to Mira's appeal as the wine world can be a very traditional place.
"But there has yet to be a device that is better than putting wine in a cellar and letting it take its time," he says. "If you are patient, you can be rewarded."