Around 10 years ago there was a trend among wine producers to experiment with maturing their wines not in cellars but at depths in the seas and oceans. The famous case of Louis Roederer submerging a few thousands bottles near Mont-St-Michel and their subsequent positive tastings lead to others doing the same, include Veuve Clicquot but the trend for underwater maturation seems to have died down lately.
Famous exponents of such bottle age (its generally sealed bottles not barrels that are maturing under the sea apart from the famous case of Larrivet Haut-Brion!) run the gamut from traditional Champagne houses like Louis Roederer all the way to the most radical of wine producers like Raul Perez. But why? What on earth (or in the sea!) could be the benefit for wine and Champagne of spending time in bottle in the ocean? Will this lead to changes in wine fridge technology, will their be a ‘sea mode!’?
Who matures wine at sea?
The Champagne houses have really run with this new phenomenon, from Cristal producer Louis Roederer and the aforementioned Veuve Clicquot but also lesser known houses like Leclerc Briant. It's undeniable that maturing wines at the pressured depths offers an interesting opportunity to change the characteristics of Champagne.
Still wine producers maturing their wine at sea can be found all over the winemaking map from the US (Mira) to Spain (Raul Perez) to Greece (Gaia) and even Patagonia (Wapisa).
Why mature wine at sea?
We know the factors that wine enjoys to mature comfortably, low or no UV light, no vibration, a constant 12°C and the lack of oxygen or bad aromas. The sea replicates the idea conditions for maturing wines. Here are the top reasons to mature wine at sea.
#1 - There's no rent at sea. Building and maintaining a wine cellar and keeping it at temperature has significant costs whilst your wine can live rent free in the ocean (permit permitting!)
#2 - The ocean keeps a consistent temperature and requires no AC, electricity or wine cooling technology.
#3 - No chance of oxidation with the sea being devoid of oxygen.
#4 - The sea is a pretty dark place, so no UV light or light strike to worry about.
#5 - Sparkling wines get a real boost with the increased pressure maintaining Sparkling wine for longer in bottle.
The clear reason to mature wine under the sea though is to give your wine a story and angle, something to talk about other than terroir or winemaking, this is a real depart from the traditional 12 months in barrel, 24 month in bottle story and gives a genuine potential angle for changing the character as the wine as well as a truly unique USP.
Reasons not to mature wine at sea?
Whilst all this is true, there are some clear and obvious drawbacks to maturing wine at sea including;
#1 - The costs of bringing to and retrieving bottles of wine to the ocean.
#2 - The sea does not have an alarm. Anyone could come along and steal your wine unless you have it secured somehow (not to mention those pesky dolphins). It's unlikely you can quickly get down to the sea like you could a cellar in your winery if you believe your wine is being stolen.
#3 - Sea critters - they like to attach themselves to the bottles.
#4 - Saltwater contamination - whilst oxygen may not get into your wine, saltwater potentially could.
#5 - Storms and unexpected events - sediment doesn't really like to disturbed. The gentle motion of the sea beats earthly vibration but who knows what may be nudging and banging those bottles from schools of dolphins to category storms.
The US authorities came out against submerged wines in 2015 citing worries about contamination and therefore these wines are not for sales there. If the US is a big market for you, that's a pretty compelling reason not to bother!
Are there noticeable differences between wine matured at sea and those matured in cellars?
Well, according to proponents of underwater maturation there are clear differences between the bottles that went into the sea for several months vs those that stayed in the cellar. Most clearly beneficial with Champagne due to the pressure that being at depth gave, the wines maintained their effervescence better but were also claimed to be fresher.
Still wines matured at sea are claimed to have fresher fruit, more elegance, greater colour intensity and persistence, characteristics every wine maker strives for. It's even been claimed that underwater maturation slows down the overall maturation process.
Will ocean terroir become a thing?
Maybe, some winemakers are choosing to mature their wines at the bottom of deep lakes instead of the ocean, perhaps different oceans, or different depths may change how the wine matures over time. It's an exciting opportunity for winemakers to experiment with a new concept in winemaking that will make exciting reading (and tasting) for years to come.