By Suzanne Mustacich
Winemaking doesn’t normally require a snorkel, but experiments in underwater winemaking in France, Italy, Spain and Greece may have vintners reassessing their gear. By playing with the parameters of how wine is fermented and aged—oxygen exposure, temperature, darkness, pressure and agitation—winemakers are using the sea to rethink how we make great wine.
“Of course, if people want to put all the wine in the world underwater, it’s going to get complicated,” said winemaking consultant Michel Rolland. “But is there an effect from submerging the wine? Certainly.”
In June 2011, Bruno Lemoine, director of Château Larrivet Haut-Brion, chained a 56-liter new oak barrel filled with his 2009 Merlot-Cabernet blend to an oyster bed owned by his friend Joel Dupuch, an actor and seventh-generation oyster farmer. “I didn’t know what to expect. I was afraid it was complete nonsense, but we were very, very pleasantly surprised,” said Lemoine.
The oyster-bed barrel, dubbed Neptune, spent six months immersed in Arcachon Bay, partially exposed to air for an hour a day at low tide. High tide put the barrel 20 feet under. The wine also weathered the bay’s legendary current. “Twice a day there is this enormous mass of water—800 million cubic meters—that comes and goes to the Atlantic,” said Dupuch. Meanwhile, a similar 56-liter new oak barrel, named Tellus, aged the usual way in the cellar in Leognan.
In January 2012, the barrels were reunited on land and analyzed by Rolland’s lab. Tellus had a more youthful color and better polymerization of tannins due to the micro-oxygenation in the cellar, while osmosis between the sea and the wine gave Neptune a touch of salt that masked bitterness and heightened flavors, a slightly lower degree of alcohol and rounder tannins.
“The wine that was in the submerged barrel was clearly better—more complex, more intense than the wine that was aged in the château’s cellar. It was inarguably a completely different wine,” said Rolland. “We have a more approachable-tasting wine, and the tannins are much softer, they seem older.” Intrigued by the sea, Rolland is also consulting on a deep-sea cellar, 124 miles off the Atlantic coast at a depth of 3,280 feet.