In a time when more wines are available to consumers than ever before, not only are sommeliers constantly looking for new and interesting bottles, but winemakers themselves are looking for innovative, unique ways of making wine. When it comes to aging, producers are experimenting with types of oak, concrete vessel shapes, amphorae, solera systems, sur lie — the list goes on. But all around the world, some producers are looking to aging techniques that quite literally lie at greater depths, foregoing those land-aging techniques to experiment under the sea. Does the new frontier of wine aging lie underwater?
One of the first winemakers to experiment with underwater aging was Spaniard Raúl Pérez, already known for his innovative work championing the indigenous grape varieties of northwestern Spain. Pérez first decided to age wine underwater in 2003 when he sank bottles of Albariño grown in Rías Baixas vineyards just 500 feet from the ocean in a nearby bay for 60 days, later dubbing the bottles “Sketch.” Since then, more than a handful of producers around the world have experimented with underwater aging, from Mira Winery in Napa to Chateau Larrivet Haut Brion in Bordeaux to Louis Roederer in Champagne. Wines are being aged underwater in France, Spain, Italy, Greece, the U.S., Chile, South Africa, Australia, and beyond.
Which brings up an important question: why? Why have so many producers around the world thought that underwater aging might be a worthwhile next step for their wines? Many cite the recent discoveries of intact bottles of wine at shipwreck sites as inspiration, particularly the 2010 discovery of 168 Champagne bottles aboard a 19th-century shipwreck in the Baltic Sea. Some of these 170-year-old bottles were actually drinkable, even retaining a slight fizz, with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot selling for a whopping 15,000 euros at auction. This was the direct inspiration for Clicquot’s “Cellar in the Sea,” a 50-year experiment to see how the house’s Champagne bottles sunk near the site of the shipwreck will age (the bottles were sunk in 2014, so only 48 more years to go!).
However, the reasons to turn to the sea can also boil down to mere practicality; another pioneer of the method, Piero Lugano of Bisson in Liguria, found in 2008 that his wine shop simply didn’t have enough space to age the sparkling wine he wanted to make. The solution? To plunge 6,500 bottles into the sea off the Ligurian coastline the following spring, which they retrieved over a year later (after 10 consecutive dives to locate them, that is). And don’t think it’s just sparkling wine that’s being aged underwater; white, red, rosé, and even sherry lie in the ocean’s depths. Above all, the winemakers who choose to experiment with underwater aging believe that the oceanic factors of consistent temperature, lack of light, relative lack of oxygen, underwater pressure, and movement from tides will have a positive (or at least interesting) effect on their wines.
Like most vinification methods, there are different philosophies when it comes to underwater aging. Most producers choose to employ some variation of finished bottles being held in a secure cage underwater, but differences can be seen in whether the winemaker chooses to filter or not filter the wine before aging (some believing that unfiltered wine can better interact with its environment) or which closure is used to seal the wine (i.e, cork or crown cap). The choice of location plays a factor as well; the temperature of the water in which the wine is aged must not be too warm or cold, and the actual depth in which the wine is placed matters as well. According to the FDA, “every ten meters of depth at which a wine is aged subjects wine bottle seals to one atmosphere of pressure,” affecting how the wine interacts with the seawater around it.
A few winemakers, on the other hand, are choosing to age entire barrels of wine rather than individual bottles, believing that this will have more of an effect on the wine. Julie Benau’s “Libero” Picpoul uses the ocean’s movement as a way of lees-stirring as the barrel sits in an oyster bed in the Mediterranean Sea, and Chateau Larrivet Haut Brion’s “Neptune” Bordeaux blend barrel actually varies in depth as the tides rise and fall, moving from 20 feet below the surface to one foot above and actually becoming exposed to the air. And then there are winemakers that, rather than leaving their wine to the whims of the ocean, are creating their own underwater environments for aging – Australia’s Ben Portet and South Africa’s Craig Hawkins are each experimenting with submerging barrels in tanks filled with fresh water.
So now to the bottom line: What effect, if any, does underwater aging have on the finished wine? Well, it’s still a little unclear. Mira Winery, which is among the research leaders and has dubbed the method “aquaoir” (a play on “terroir”), concludes that wine aged underwater has an accelerated aging effect; its 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, left underwater for three months, tasted as if it had aged an additional two years when compared with a land-aged version. Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion made similar conclusions, saying that the underwater-aged wine had more complexity and approachability than its land-aged counterpart. Interestingly enough, the Australian and South African winemakers who aged their wines in “artificial” underwater environments found the opposite, that the wines were fresher, with more tannin.
Other winemakers, particularly producers of white and sparkling wines, have seen positive but immeasurable effects, simply noting that the wines tend to have more interesting non-fruit, earth, and saline characteristics. That said, to the outside observer the results may not even be noticeable if not for the mention that the wine was aged underwater in the first place. Whether or not consumers notice a difference in taste, they will certainly notice a difference in price of wine aged underwater. Between new equipment, specialized manpower, potential for loss, and sheer marketing value, the price of these wines can be very high, often upwards of $80 for wines that normally would cost around $20 or $30. Mira’s now-sold-out underwater Cabernet Sauvignon sold for a whopping $500; in comparison, the land-aged version cost $48.
The future of underwater aging, therefore is unclear. While there are still wineries committed to it, such as Viña Maris in Spain, dedicated solely to underwater aging, it seems that some wineries have deemed the process unworthy of the risk. Pioneer Raúl Pérez, for instance, now ages only a small percentage of Sketch Albariño underwater for research purposes; due to a large amount of spoilage from one vintage, all commercially available Sketch is aged on land. Legal barriers may stop this frontier’s research as well; a March 2014 FDA declaration deemed the practice illegal after looking into Mira Winery’s methodology, citing the risk for unsafe substances to enter the bottles in the water.
In the end, is underwater aging a gimmick or worthwhile pursuit? With research into the subject still so young, it’s hard to say, but probably a bit of both. With multiple sources noting that wines develop faster under the sea, it seems that underwater aging does have an effect, but is it a desired effect? And even more so, is it worth the costly effort to achieve what time may be able to do on its own? With the research still early and actual results not very conclusive, it seems that right now the cost to the consumer does not justify the sometimes-imperceptible result. Does that mean that research efforts should end? Absolutely not. While it’s unlikely that ocean waters will be filled with entire harvests of wine in 20 years, once these production methods are better honed, who knows? We may be donning scuba gear to retrieve some of the world’s most interesting wines.