How A California Winery Is Aging Wine Beneath the Waves

by Owen James Burke

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You can now buy wine aged at sea courtesy of Mira Winery in Napa Valley by way of Charleston, SC, barnacles included. Photo via Mira Winery

Since the discovery of a 19th-century shipwreck off Finland containing over 40 bottles of nearly 200-year-old wine that has been said to be superb (and which fetched thousands of dollars per bottle at auction), European vintners have been running wild, aging everything from reds to whites and even champagnes beneath the waves. Jim Dyke Jr., owner of Mira Winery in Napa Valley, California seems to be spearheading the experiment on the American front.

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A diver brings a cage of Mira’s ocean-aged Aquaoir wine to the surface, which some argue gets its distinct flavor from getting ‘the bends’ on its way up. Photo courtesy of Mira Winery

Alongside veteran winemaker Gustavo Gonzalez, Mr. Dyke selected four cases of the winery’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. The duo sought a body of water where temperatures were consistent with the temperatures in which wine is stored on land, and decided that the 13° C (55.4° F) water 60 feet below the surface would make do. The wine then went into cages and sat for three months.

Winemaker Gustavo Gonzalez and President Jim %22Bear%22 Dyke Jr prior to Aquaoir submersion

Mira winemaker Gustavo Conzalez (left) and owner Jim “Bear” Dyke Jr. (right). Photo courtesy of Mira Winery

To taste the wine, which Mira is calling Aquaoir — a play on aqua (“water”) and “terroir” (a word which signifies the belief that the flavor of grapes varies depending on the soil in which they’re grown) — Mr. Dyke and Mr. Gonzalez brought in advanced sommelier Patrick Emerson and poured the ocean-aged wine side by side with the same vintage of cellar-aged wine. All three agreed that the ocean had expedited the aging process, resulting in a more rounded, complex flavor. Clearly, further experimentation was necessary.

Next, the duo sent down 100 bottles of their 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, and let them sit for six months through the winter season. Because the wine would be underwater for a longer duration and in the midst of the North Atlantic winter, they fixed a GPS to the cages to make sure they could find it and attached gauges to record the temperature by hour.

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This is what a case of wine looks like after 3 months in a cage 10 fathoms beneath the surface of Charleston Harbor. Photo courtesy of Mira Winery

The cages were deposited into Charleston Harbor in December and the bottles were subject to a 2-3° C drop in temperature before the cages were weighed up in June. Again they were served with a cellar-aged wine of the same vintage and grape, but this time in a blind taste test. 140 of the 147 participants believed that they were tasting wine from different grapes.

In the lab, tests showed a nearly identical chemical makeup which threw everyone in the research team for a loop, not to mention the advanced sommelier, Mr. Emerson. How could two samples so similar in chemical makeup reach the tongue with such distinct differences?

Some suggest that the pressure of the sea at 60 feet almost cooks the wine, accounting for its accelerated maturation, while others suggest that like mammals, fish and turtles, the wine gets ‘the bends’ on the way up.

The next project for Mira is their 2013 Chardonnay. If they like it, they may send the entire vintage for a prolonged stay in Davy’s locker.

”All we can be certain of at this point in our experiment,” says Mr. Dyke excitedly, “is that the ocean holds a potential gift to wine.”

Time will tell, but for all the future might hold, there may soon be a lot of available space in wine cellars around the world.

“Our Aquaoir ocean aging experiments are ongoing,” Mira Winery’s Molly Pearson tells us, “and we are eager to see what more we can learn about the effects the ocean has on the aging of wine.”

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If you order a bottle of Aquaoir accompanied by her landlubbing sister, this is how you’ll receive her. Don’t mind the barnacles. Photo via Mira Winery

Aquaoir sells for $500 paired with the same vintage of cellar-aged wine, intended to be tasted side by side. Find out how and when you can order it from Mira Winery here — OJB

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