What is Aquaoir?
Aquaoir – from aqua (“water”) — is the interaction between a submerged container of wine and the set of special characteristics that a body of water and its environment hold: temperature, pressure, light (or darkness) and motion.
The concept of terroir is the belief that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that growing site. Aquaoir is the concept that oceans, and other bodies of water, might impart unique characteristics on the aging process of submerged wine in water.
With terroir you have to make assumptions. With Aquaoir it is possible to work towards certain conclusions based on comparing wine that has been aged in the water with the same wine aged on land. It means tasting and chemically testing and comparing rather than just tasting in the abstract.
Does the sea hold the secret to truly great wines? The ocean provides a unique environment for aging.
Wine in Charleston Harbor Is No Treasure Hunt — Or Is It?
Charleston is a city famous for its rich history. Its reputation for preserving and cherishing its past is complimented today by a world-class food and beverage industry that supports a ranking as “Top City in the U.S.” So it’s only appropriate that Mira Winery looked for 21st century treasure in Charleston Harbor.
In 1978 professional diver Bill Kinsey recovered wine described as “incredibly good” from a British sailing ship that sank in 30 feet of water near the mouth of the Savannah Channel in 1840.
While searching for gold coins and other treasures on the sunken RMS Republic off the coast of Massachusetts, divers found bottles of wine that were on board when it sank in 1909. The quality of the wine found in these and many other “discoveries” suggest the wine was actually enhanced by the underwater elements.
These discoveries inspired three Frenchmen to ask a simple question: Does the sea hold the secret to truly great wines?
There are a limited number of factors that impact wine fermentation and aging – temperature, pressure, humidity, movement, light (or darkness) and oxygen. The ocean provides a unique environment with cold temperatures, constant pressure, little-to-no light and constant motion.
In 2007 Emmanuel Poirmeur was one of the first in modern times to take advantage of the sea for wine making using concrete tanks. Then in 2009 Piero Lugano stored 6500 bottles 196 feet into the sea off of Portofino Marine Park. Lugano told “Wine Spectator” that the absence of oxygen and slight cradle effect, created by the strong currents, encourage the optimal development of aromas. Bottles, barrels, concrete and plastic flextanks have all been in the oceans off Europe. And now Mira Winery is the first in the United States to age wine in the ocean, successfully aging 48 bottles in Charleston Harbor from February thru May 2013.
Our initial program submerged four cages holding bottles of 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon in Charleston Harbor for three months. We tested the wine aging process by measuring the impact of underwater pressure on the corks, the durability of the cages to ensure bottle security and collected data on the underwater temperature in comparison with surface temperature. This is just Phase I of our ocean aging experiments, with more to come.
Some of those who have gone before us were using the ocean primarily as a storage facility. We think this is just the start of the ocean’s gift to quality wine. Our program is the beginning of a learning process that will provide an additional prism to view the impact of the elements on the aging of wine. The first step is to identify the right location and understand its environment. Looking forward, some of the control factors can be altered, such as the we can begin to alter such as the type of containers used. What is the impact between a ready-to-drink wine versus a barrel with wine from an earlier aging process? We want to know.
We also want to continue to try and understand the difference between wine bottles stored on the ocean floor versus bottles aged in the warehouse absent natural light and maintaining a temperature of 59 degrees. Do these very similar but completely different environments have different impacts on the aging of wine? We want to know.
Our winemaker, Gustavo Gonzalez, was with Robert Mondavi for 17 years and routinely produced incredibly high scores for his red wine. His depth of experience will allow us to combine the old world traditions of wine making mixed with the ocean floor environment to truly understand the results they produce.
Our in-depth chemical analysis of the wine is not just a science experiment. We want to understand the impact on taste. Charleston sommeliers tasted the wine before we put it in the harbor and again after it was removed, comparing wine from the ocean versus wine from the warehouse. After all, our goal is to find methods to enhance flavor, experience and ultimately enjoyment.
At Mira Winery we like to say, “we have southern roots and Napa grapes.” Our roots define who we are and how we operate while our grapes give us the opportunity to produce world-class wines. The quality of our wine will define us while we will distinguish ourselves through passion for the experience and innovation.
Most conversations about fine wine today lead to a discussion of “terroir” – the soil, the weather, the people that produce the wine. Ten years from now, could the discussion about wine revolve around the ocean and the soil? Will wine enthusiasts be discussing “Aquaoir” – the ocean, the weather, and the people which produce the wine?
For generations, people have looked for secrets to making the finest wines in the world. It’s not clear what our results will be, but that didn’t stop those who have searched for earlier treasures. One thing we know for certain, Mira Winery looks forward to joining the history of Charleston.
Jim “Bear” Dyke, Jr. has been President of Mira Winery since 2011.
“There is no doubt that the ocean holds a potential gift to wine.”
JIM “BEAR” DYKE JR.
In order to begin the ocean aging process, underwater housing had to be designed. Various constraints were taken into account. For example, the harsh underwater environment (i.e. temperature, pressure, water current, etc.) and the relatively delicate cargo was a difficult combination to unite because the bottles are constructed from glass and must be secured without breaking while allowing for some movement of the bottles. The design called for the “cage” to be constructed out of welded steel angle iron, flat bar, and expanded metal for screening. Four cages were constructed and each held one (1) full case of wine consisting of 12 bottles.
The bottles are secured in a modular fashion. Each bottle is loosely strapped to a board that is inserted into the cage and each board holds four (4) bottles. There are three (3) boards per cage.
The modular design was used because of an interest expressed in the initial meeting of potentially pulling samples throughout the process as a way to monitor the progress of the batch.
The chemical analysis consist primarily of testing pH, alcohol, volatile acidity and turbidity and comparing the results of the land aged versus the water aged. How is that for science of wine aging?
Experiments In Ocean Aging
“What we learn from aging in the water may have real implications for the decisions we make about aging wine more broadly. . . We are glad to see that other wineries are beginning to recognize the value of Aquaoir experiments.”
JIM “BEAR” DYKE JR.
Additional Experimentation in Ocean Aging
Bisson Abissi Prosecco
Raul Perez Sketch
Château Champ des Soeurs et l’Abbaye Sainte-Eugénie
A white Corbieres with a synthetic cork by Nomacorc in Fitou, France.
Louis Roederer (the makers of Cristal)
Sunk of champagne in the Bay of MontSaint-Michel in Normandy, France where temperatures maintain an even 50° F.
Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion
Experimented aging a 56 litre barrel of Bordeaux in the Bay of Arcachon calling it “Neptune.”
Exo Gonia Island in Santorini, Greece
Henri Maire from Arbois
France has submerged wines in an ancient underwater Abbay in Lake of Vouglans, France’s 3rd largest man-made lake.
A group of wine makers submerged 276 bottles in the ocean last year as part of a long-term experiment on aging. The plan is to open 24 bottles every 20 years to see how the wine has evolved.
Chillon Castle and Badoux Wine
Performing a joint experiment over the next 20 years in Aigle.
Created a “Cellar in the Sea” to monitor aging.
Aged their Napa red wines for three months in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.
Mira winery in an effort to learn more about the aging process placed 8 cages containing a case of wine each into Charleston Harbor. The idea was to maintain a constant cellar temperature of around 55 degrees while adding motion, pressure and total darkness. The wine was in Charleston Harbor for 6 months from November to May to match the appropriate water temperature and to avoid hurricanes. After the wine was pulled from the ocean it was blind tasted against the same wine aged on land. It was also chemically analyzed. The results of the blind tasting suggested two different wines both on the nose and taste. At the same time the chemical analysis was consistent with the same wine aged on land with the exception of the turbidity (clarity). Prior to the governments decree almost 200 people blind tasted the wine.
Unfortunately, in March of 2014 the Federal Government stopped our experiment suggesting that Charleston Harbor was sewage water and therefore the wax over the corks was degraded, the corks were violated and therefore the wine was adulterated. If the government had requested samples of any of our bottles they would have seen that in fact the wax was not degraded, the corks were not violated and our chemical analysis showed that the wine was not adulterated.
Was it possible we were learning techniques that might revolutionize how the industry thinks about aging? We don’t know. We hope that at some point in the future the Federal Government will take a more reasoned approach and allow us to continue our experiment.