A winery in Napa Valley is taking an unconventional approach to an age-old tradition that dates back to before medieval times. In an effort to experiment with the wine-aging process, Mira Winery in Saint Helena, Calif., has submerged four cases of their 2009 cabernet sauvignon in South Carolina's Charleston Harbor to see how the ocean affects the wine.
While most wine experts would recommend aging wine in a cool area such as a warehouse or basement with a constant temperature around 55°F (13°C), stories of naturally aged Champagne found in 100-year-old shipwrecks at the bottom of the ocean have peaked the interest of the folks at Mira.
“We all read about the ship wreckages that have been found with Champagne and have read stories of how the champagne was just incredible,” Gustavo Gonzalez, head winemaker at Mira Winery, said. “So we thought: You know what? Nothing has really been done like that here in the U.S. Why don’t we try to put some of our cabernet in the Charleston Harbor for three months as a trial and see what happens.’”
Mira Winery, which opened in 2009 and puts out a selection of different grape varietals including syrah, cabernet sauvignon, pinot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, placed the bottles of wine in yellow steel mesh cages and then submerged them offshore in an undisclosed location in the Charleston Harbor.
According to Gonzalez, the body of water was chosen because the winery shares a partnership with a local businessman in the area.
After the three-month period has expired, the winemakers will recover the cabernet and submit it to a number of different tests to see how it differs from wine that has been aged on shore as opposed off.
“It seems like a fun working experience more than anything, because we don’t know what we’re going to get, and we don’t know if it’s going to be better or worse,” Gonzalez said. “Hopefully, it’ll be different -- I don’t know how different.”
Stories of old have long told tales of wine, Champagne and other alcoholic beverages that have been recovered from sunken ships and over time have seemingly acquired a unique taste, which the ocean is said to be responsible for.
Gonzalez, a winemaker who has 17 years of industry experience, suggests elements that might affect the underwater aging process include pressure levels, different amounts of light exposure and a unique swaying motion.
“In the water, we have different pressure, we have different light, and we also have a little bit of a swaying motion. I’m not sure what the swaying motion is going to do, but if you think of Champagne and how they riddle Champagne to get the sediment down, it does make some sense,” Gonzalez said. “But I would imagine that the difference in pressure and other things might have an effect on the aging of the wine and maybe even slow it down. That would be my best guess.”
The wine, encased in marine steel cages made to withstand the ocean environment, was submerged on Feb. 20 with hardened wax covering the neck portion of the bottle as to assure that water does not come in contact with the wine or even the cork.
GPS tracking devices have also been attached to the cases so they can be located in the event they are moved by the currents or if an unauthorized diver decides to cut the aging process short.
Once the wine is brought to the surface, Gonzalez and Mira Winery will submit the aged wine to a panel of wine tasters from the Charleston, S.C., area. While the wine will be compared to other Mira Winery products that have been aged on shore, tests will also be conducted to see if there is any chemical difference.
“It’s a pretty big learning process, because there are a lot of unknowns for us as far as exactly what we’re expecting,” Gonzalez said. “Making wine is something that’s been done for a really long time, and, as winemakers, we all know the process, we all use the same tools ... but this is something that’s totally different and off the beaten path of what wine making really is.”
Assuming all goes according to plan, Gonzalez said that Mira Winery will most likely continue to experiment with the underwater aging process using different types of wine and offering up the different varietals to top customers as a premium item.
But for now, Gonzalez said, “The goal with this first batch is just to see what happens.”
My name is Carey Vanderborg and I'm a journalist working in New York City. I love food, travel, craft beer, live music and writing about all of the above.