History substantiates ancient Greeks and Romans aged their wines. St. Luke writes in the New Testament, “And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish.”
Through archeological excavations of ancient civilizations, we know ancient man put away wines in cellars or buried them in amphorae for later consumption. In doing so, they learned some wines improve with aging and actually became more palatable.
Ancient wines, not being made in controlled sanitary environments, were subject to spoilage. Primitive containers allowed oxygen exposure, thus further contributing to spoilage. Much effort went into disguising spoiled wines. Honey and other foreign matter were added to wines. Some were artificially aged by subjecting them to smoke and fire.
When the Roman Empire fell, the taste for aged wines disappeared for more than a thousand years, but in the 17th century the British invented stronger wine bottles and started using cork closures.
“The aging of wine in bottle was pioneered in England by connoisseurs of fine claret and port when English wine drinkers rediscovered pleasure largely unknown since Roman times,” writes Geoffrey Taylor in “The Oxford Companion to Wine.”
Modern day state-of-the-art wineries invest fortunes in equipment and structures designed specifically for wine aging. Wine aging is most often a three-step process. Wine is aged and fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, then in neutral or new oak barrels or a combination of both, depending on the varietal from which the wine is made. Finally wine is bottle aged. This is why wines are rarely released in their vintage year. They are held back to mature. Silver Oak Cellars just released their 2008 vintage cabernet, five years after the fruit was picked for this wine.
Winemakers and producers are constantly looking for new, improved ways to age wines. The latest fad is undersea aging, an idea perhaps sparked by found drinkable caches of old wines salvaged from ancient wrecks.
I heard of this phenomenon last year at a Spanish wine seminar when Raul Perez was mentioned. Perez makes a wine called Sketch in the most northwestern wine-growing area of his native Spain. Sketch is made from the albarino grape. Fruit for this wine is sourced from a vineyard located just 500 feet from the Atlantic Ocean.
Sketch is aged 12 months in French oak before bottling. After bottling some lots are submerged 60 feet under the sea for further aging in specially designed cages that keep bottles from bouncing around. The cage has to be lowered and retrieved by divers.
The deep sea provides four constants in wine aging: absence of light, absence of oxygen exposure, constant temperature and constant humidity. Some of Perez’s lots have been compromised by the sea, but uncompromised lots are said to be stunning.
The average price for Sketch is $74 per bottle, if it can be found, because it is made in such small lots. I found no availability.
In addition to Perez, some others experimenting with undersea aging include the famous Champagne house of Louis Roederer, Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion and Bisson Abissi Prosecco.
More recently, an American wine has taken the plunge. Jim “Bear” Dyke Jr., owner of Napa’s Mira Winery, lowered 48 bottles of his 2009 Napa Cabernet into Charleston Harbor Feb. 20.
Although the Pacific Ocean is in closer proximity to the winery, Dyke lives in Charleston, S.C., so Charleston Harbor was selected for the baptismal site. When the bottles are raised May 25, a determination will be made if the wine aged under water tastes better than wine aged more conventionally.
If underwater wine aging becomes more of a practice than a fad, perhaps the city of Anniston could market Coldwater Springs as a wine-aging site. The water source is deep, dark, pure, abundant, void of oxygen and is not called Coldwater for nothing.
Contact Pat Kettles at firstname.lastname@example.org.