Underwater wine ageing: A niche trend
Underwater wine ageing has developed as a niche trend that has spread around the world – even if US regulators raised questions about the practice in 2015.
While some may view it as a marketing move, many participants say they are keen to experiment with ageing in a new environment in nature and that there is evidence of underwater conditions affecting a wine’s flavour.
Some producers ageing wine underwater have been inspired by shipwreck wines discovered after decades nestled on the ocean floor.
Projects include Veuve Clicquot submerging Champagne in the Baltic sea and Gaia Winery in Greece trialling bottles matured beneath the Mediterranean.
It’s not always just about sinking bottles, either. Bordeaux’s Larrivet Haut-Brion aged a barrel of its 2009 vintage partially submerged in the sea, while Croatia’s Edivo winery has aged bottles in amphoras under the ocean.
Can you taste underwater wine ageing?
Several trials have reported differences between ‘underwater wine’ and bottles or vats aged on land, but there are varying opinions and research is still very much an emerging area.
Argentinian winemaker Patricia Ortiz recently reported ‘stunning’ differences between Malbec blends aged in crates beneath the Atlantic Ocean and those on land, after a trial at her Wapisa winery in Patagonia.
‘We seek elegance in our wines’ Ortiz told Marina Gayan MW in this article. ‘We were curious to explore if underwater ageing could actually allow us to have young wines with the benefit of maturity.
‘We tasted the underwater-aged wine and the cellar-aged counterparts blind, the difference was stunning: the former was rounder, more elegant and with fresher fruit.’
In Champagne, biodynamic producer Leclerc Briant has created a special underwater cuvée named ‘Abyss’. Now in the fourth year of the project, 4,000 bottles of the 2016 vintage are currently 60 metres below the water line in the sea off France’s northwest coast.
‘We did it first to test underwater ageing because it’s perfect conditions,’ said Pierre Bettinger, commercial director at Leclerc Briant. He highlighted the complete darkness, lack of oxygen and natural temperature regulation.
‘We are not saying that we are making a better wine,’ he added. But he said the trials offer a new avenue of exploration, and that blind tastings held with experts have suggested underwater ageing has an effect on a wine’s character.
Some tasters have talked about the complexity of the wines and also noted a saline character, for instance. But Bettinger emphasised that ‘nothing comes in or out of the bottles’ while they are under the sea.
Other producers have also found underwater ageing emphasises certain characteristics in the wine. ‘We have been doing our own studies for the last 12 years,’ said Borja Saracho, founder and general manager of Crusoe Treasure underwater winery in the Basque country in northern Spain.
Crusoe, which makes 10 different wines and ages its bottles in the Bay of Plentzia, organised an international conference on underwater wines in 2019.
Saracho said the whole concept began as ‘only a study’ but the promising results led to the development of the winery.
Crusoe’s work has shown how underwater wines can develop different characteristics, according to Antonio Palacios, the group’s oenology director and also a specialist in chemical analysis who created the Excell Iberica lab in 2008.
Attributes of the underwater wines include ‘greater intensity of colour’ and a slower evolution of the wine’s hue over time, Palacios told Decanter via email.
When it comes to smell, the wines have ‘greater intensity’ and tend to show fewer herbaceous and vegetable aromas, with accentuated primary fruit and floral notes, he said. On the palate, he described the wines as having a ‘silkiness’ with a greater sense of freshness.
Such characteristics are not the sole preserve of underwater ageing, of course. Winemakers around the world might describe their wines in similar terms depending on decisions taken in the cellar.
But Palacios highlighted several specific reasons why underwater ageing might accentuate certain aspects of a wine.
These ranged from natural temperature regulation and protection from light rays to the impact of pressure changes and the movement of the sea itself – which produces a ‘continual vibrating effect’ on the wines, Palacios said.
He added that the energy within the ocean provides an ‘authentic biodynamic system for wine creation’.
How big can the underwater wine trend get?
‘It has a great marketing potential as you can talk about many more new things other than vineyards and terroir,’ said Juan Park, director for Spain and South America at consumer research group Wine Intelligence and a speaker at the underwater wine conference in 2019.
‘I think there is a place for these wines (larger than today but still probably niche),’ he said via email, ‘as long as wineries can tell the sceptical mind why the wines are made this way and how it relates to quality or interesting noticeable differences, not just marketing.’
Austrian winemaker Josef Möth is selling wines produced from two vats that were submerged 60 metres on the bed of Lake Constance. He recently told Decanter that he is hoping to do a second experiment in a different location and that he did not view the process as a marketing exercise.
For one thing, ‘it’s a lot of work to do it’, he said. ‘It’s the adventure and the team experience. That’s why we do it, not for the money.’
Professor Robert Steidl, who worked with Möth Winery on the first trial, said that chemical analysis revealed little difference between the wines aged beneath Lake Constance and those on shore. However, sensory and tasting analysis did show interesting differences between the wines.
‘Tasters could detect and distinguish the different characters,’ said Steidl. There were more floral and citrus notes in the lake-aged white wines, in particular, he said.
Steidl said experimentation was to be encouraged. ‘If we don’t try, we will not know.’ But he thinks the cost and risks involved in ageing wines underwater will mean it remains as a ‘niche for high-priced wines’.
US regulators raise concerns
The US is the only country where Leclerc Briant can’t export Abyss, said Bettinger.
US regulators took a dim view of the emerging trend for ageing wine underwater in 2015. Submerging wine in the sea could lead to contamination if the bottle seals are compromised, said the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in advice to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB).
Changes to pressure under the water line could in theory allow contaminants from gasoline to ‘various types of filth’ to get inside the bottle, said an advisory note from the TTB published in March 2015. It didn’t name any producers.
However, wineries have said there is no evidence of this being a problem as long as the right processes are followed. Bettinger said Leclerc Briant was hopeful US regulators would change their policy in future.
California’s Mira winery has previously said the federal government’s position forced a halt on trials involving ageing Napa red wines in Charleston Harbour. Mira has said chemical analysis from its ‘Aquaoir’ project showed the wines were not adulterated and wax seals had not degraded.