More than 50 guests, including experts, oenologists and winemakers, attended the Underwater Wine Congress held at the Itsasmuseum, Bilbao’s naval history centre, on 12 and 13 December.
They discussed wine inadvertently aged for centuries in sunken ships and listened to winemakers talking about the process and challenges of submerging wine in the sea today.
They also spoke of concerns about copycat wineries giving this niche-but-growing sector a bad name.
Crusoe Treasure, the winery that organised the congress, began production 10 years ago.
Proponents, including some winemakers and sommeliers, argue that the peculiarities of wine aged underwater are real and include an acceleration of the ageing process – potentially yielding a smoother, more complex wines in less time.
Oenologists Marilena Bonilla, of Protos, and Fernando Ballesteros, of Bodegas Aragonesas, recounted their stories of tasting and believing.
‘I have to admit I was a bit sceptical before trying wine hoarded underwater,’ said Bonilla. ‘But I was really excited by how they had evolved. It was as if they had been in the bottle another year, with a certain maturity and roundness.’
Making wine like this is expensive and difficult when done correctly, according to conference-goers.
There was concern that copycat wineries threaten to undermine the legitimacy of those that produce wine from their own vineyards, have permits for their undersea operations, and in general carry out a detailed control of conditions and sourcing.
‘Every time we are in the news, 20 “visionaries” give a press conference around the world and say they are doing the same,’ said Borja Saracho, co-founder of Crusoe Treasure. ‘Even when all they’ve done is throw some wine in the sea.’
Saracho thinks the conference will help establish greater credibility for underwater wine.
‘There is the opportunity for development on many fronts: oenologically, environmentally and around tourism,’ said Saracho. ‘But there should be rules and procedures in place.’
The conference was led by expert oenologist Antonio Palacio of Crusoe Treasure.
Day two of the event took place in the Research Centre for Experimental Marine Biology and Biotechnology in Plentzia, off the coast of the Crusoe Treasure’s underwater home. This included a demonstration of how wines are extracted from the sea.
‘Not everyone is a huge brand,’ said Asier Alea, representative of trade promotion and tourism for the Bizkaia regional government, which co-sponsored the conference. ‘Small projects that are born in your territory, you have to support them, and this is a niche that no one has taken over.’