Does Deep-Sea Aging Improve Wine? | Wine Enthusiast
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Deep-Sea Aging Is a Growing Trend. But Does It Improve Wine?

For thousands of years, wine has largely been aged in the conventional way—in barrels, bottles and other vessels tucked away in subterranean lairs often referred to as caves. These places are prized for conditions that are beneficial to the aging of wine, including consistent temperatures and humidity levels. But there are many other factors to consider when aging wine, including pressure, light, oxygen levels and, for sparkling wines, movement.

But what if the ideal environment for aging wine isn’t a cave at all? What if it’s underwater?

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From Shipwreck to Glass

The notion of aging wine under the waves has been floating around for some time. In 1998, divers found thousands of bottles of 1907 Heidsieck Champagne in a Swedish schooner sunk by a German U-boat in 1916. The wine was still drinkable, and if you believe the reports, delicious.

The discovery inspired other intentional underwater aging endeavors: In 2003, Spanish winemaker Raúl Pérez made a splash aging his Albariño off the coast of Rias Baixas. In 2008, Napa’s Mira Winery started aging its Cabernet Sauvignon in Charleston Harbor. Spain’s Crusoe Treasure launched in 2010; it calls itself the “first underwater winery and artificial reef.” Today, there are even more operations dedicated to underwater-aged wine, including ElixSea in Spain, Edivo in Croatia, Wapisa in Argentina and others.

The Champagne house Veuve Clicquot had its own introduction to underwater aging, albeit by accident, in 2010. That year, a diver exploring an 1840s shipwreck off the coast of the Finnish Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea discovered 168 bottles of Champagne, which were subsequently extracted by the Åland regional government.

Shipwrecked bottles of champagne
Shipwrecked bottles of champagne / Image Courtesy of Anders Näsman

“None of the labels remained, but bottles were later identified as Champagnes from the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin (VCP), Heidsieck and Juglar (known as Jacquesson since 1832) Champagne houses thanks to branded engravings on the surface of the cork that is in contact with the wine,” reads findings published in 2015 in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A few had laid for more than 170 years in “close-to-perfect slow-aging conditions.”

Much like the 1907 Heidsieck bottlings, they were very much still potable, although they were extremely sugary by today’s standards. Winemakers of the era sweetened their Champagnes with sugar syrup at the end of the production process, which both diluted the wine and yielded a lower alcohol content.

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Veuve Clicquot underwater cellar
Veuve Clicquot underwater cellar / Image Courtesy of Martin Colombet / Veuve Clicquot

A New Wave of Deep Sea Exploration

Veuve Clicquot was intrigued and decided to further explore the concept of underwater aging. In 2014, it laid 350 Champagne bottles to rest in the Åland Vault in the Baltic Sea. This body of water has the lowest salinity of any sea in the world, and the underwater cellar is submerged some 40 meters (131 feet) below the surface.

The Veuve team believes these conditions may produce the ideal environment for aging—the temperature is a steady 4°C year-round (about 39°F), even when the summer sun increases the surface average to 68°F. The gentle undulation of the deep-sea currents constantly jostles the bottles, so sediment doesn’t have a chance to settle, eliminating the need for disgorging. The underwater environment delivers, obviously, intense humidity and a complete dearth of oxygen.

The plan is to let the bottles sit for 40 years, but periodically pull up samples and analyze them. The wines are not available for sale—and likely won’t be anytime soon. The endeavor is instead being treated as a scientific experiment, to help determine if the deep sea is a worthy alternative to Veuve Clicquot’s chalk caves called crayères.

As for the results so far? Recently, this reporter was invited to a tasting of the four types of wine in Veuve Clicquot’s so-called “Cellar of the Sea”: the Brut Carte Jaune (Yellow Label), Brut Carte Jaune, Magnum, Vintage Rosé 2004 and Demi-Sec. They were served side-by-side with their crayères-aged counterparts.

Veuve Clicquot underwater aged bottles
Veuve Clicquot underwater aged bottles / Image Courtesy of Martin Colombet / Veuve Clicquot

Same Wine, Different Flavors

The sea-cellared wines, it seems, are aging more slowly underwater than in the notably different environment of the crayères, which maintain a 12°C (53.6°F) temperature, 90% humidity and 20% oxygen rate. Also, the traditionally-aged bottles are not in complete darkness and must be riddled.

Veuve Clicquot winemaker Gaëlle Goossens believes the Yellow Label wine is still far from its final form. It “still has incredible aging potential,” she says. The crayères-aged version, on the other hand, has already reached its aging plateau. At present, the sea-cellared bottles offer a shy nose, while the crayères-aged wines deliver a more familiar yeast aroma. On the palate, the former is fresher with more notes of pear, while the latter is all biscuit and toasted hazelnut.

Goossens is especially excited about the potential for underwater-aged magnums. “The volume of wine in a magnum is twice that compared to a 750ml bottle, but has the same air surface contact—so there is [even] less impact of air and oxygen on the magnum,” says Goossens. I found it similar to the Brut, with baguette and almond on the palate and a mineral finish. The crayères-aged versions offer notes of green apple and roasted almond.

The two versions of vintage rosé seem quite different from one another. The sea-cellared wine is more herbaceous with more delicate bubbles, while the rosé cellared in the traditional chalk caves evokes tart cherry and white flowers. Goossens says that the sea-cellared rosé has more tension, as the polyphenols in the bottling’s quotient of red wine more readily absorb oxygen, which further protects it against oxidation. With time, she believes, the wine could express itself in a more floral way.

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As for the demi-sec, the sea-cellared version does not taste like a traditional medium-sweet wine. It’s cleaner with a certain salinity and green apple with elderflower. The crayères-aged counterpart, in contrast, sips more like a conventional demi-sec, expressing exotic fruit like lychee and peach on the palate. Goossens isn’t exactly sure what accounts for the dramatic difference, which, she says, is “what makes Cellar in the Sea so fascinating.”

The project is “multifactorial,” she continues. “We are trying to understand [the effects of sea cellaring], but it is still unclear and we have more to explore.” What is clear at this point, however, is that “environmental conditions change the aging path” to a striking degree. The longer the bottles are submerged, the more she believes the team will learn.

Veuve Clicquot’s chef de caves Didier Mariotti concurs, adding that he believes the study has the power to fundamentally change the narrative on aging wine. The plan is to share findings as they’re made, and he doesn’t rule out being surprised by what’s discovered.

“It’s not about [producing] the best one, but rather to understand what’s happening [down there],” he says. “It’s just the beginning.”