Wine experiments in the Aegean
Greek oenologist tests conditions for aging world-renowned Assyrtiko off Santorini
Imagine a metal cage full of bottles of wine, with two buoys attached, being gently towed by a boat off the southeastern coast of Santorini. Then, it is slowly lowered to the seabed. And there it remains, at a depth of 25 meters, for five years, a temporary attraction for the creatures of the deep.
Among the divers overseeing the process is Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, oenologist and doctor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux II and one of the founders of Gaia Wines, along with Leon Karatsalos. When we asked him why a successful winery with good sales and international awards decided to embark on such a marine adventure, he said: “It’s not an adventure, it’s a challenge, and part of a wider international experiment into aging white wines, which in Greece is being carried out with Santorini’s Assyrtiko.” But why underwater? “Because there the aging occurs without oxygen and without light, with a steady temperature for as long as is required,” he replies.
As is usually the case, good ideas don’t come from nowhere, but it has not been that long since oenologists started looking for an alternative way of aging wine without oxygen interfering in the process. There are currently 10 wineries around the world experimenting with underwater wine aging – one in South Carolina and the rest in Spain, Italy, France and Greece.
Two years ago, the famous French winery Veuve Clicquot created its “Cellar Under the Sea,” sinking 300 regular bottles of champagne and 50 magnums of the stuff in the icy waters of the Baltic. An identical sample is being aged in the cellars of the winery in Reims. Bottles from both the cellars and the seabed will be tested in parallel every two years for the next 50 years to determine the lifetime of champagne aged in different conditions.
The idea for the experiment arose a few years ago after the discovery of a shipwreck that sank off the coast of Finland in around 1840 while transferring Veuve Clicquot champagne to Russia. A total 46 bottles were recovered intact, and though they were aged for more than a century, they had an impressive freshness, according to experts.
But it appears the sea is not the limit. In 2015 the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery in Japan announced plans to send bottles of whisky into space to conduct a two-year study on how aging is affected by the total absence of gravity.
A quick search on the internet reveals numerous articles relating to the issue of aging alcoholic beverages in the absence of oxygen. There are of course skeptics who wonder whether the experiment is a publicity stunt without substance.
“This is not about marketing,” said Yiannis Paraskevopoulos when we started talking about Thalassitis Submerged – as the classic Gaia Thalassitis aged in the sea is named.
His own conclusions after comparing the Thalassitis Submerged with the same wine aged traditionally is very positive. Although this is an aged white, it has a bright, vibrant color and maintains its crisp aroma. The flavor is also more mature and rounded than its landaged counterpart and without any trace of oxidation.
In an interview, Jim “Bear” Dyke Jr, the president of California’s Mira Winery, which submerges wines in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, said, “There is no doubt that the ocean holds a potential gift to wine.”
During the first year of the Greek experiment, in 2009, 500 bottles of Thalassitis were submerged and, of those, only three were successfully recovered because a storm swept away the cage. The next harvest was placed at a deeper point, so it would be less exposed to the weather, but, because of the increased pressure, several corks popped out. In August this year the batch sunk in 2011 was recovered, of which 211 bottles went on sale. At the same time, the batch for 2015 was submerged, which will be tested in 2020. And so the experiment continues.
During the first year of the Greek experiment, 500 bottles of Thalassitis were submerged but only three were recovered.