WHEN CHAMPAGNE from the infamous sunken Titanic was recovered in 1985 — 73 years after the luxury ship went down on April 15, 1912 in the North Atlantic Ocean — wine enthusiasts and professionals were all excited to see how the wines survived.
The Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic was the British luxury passenger liner that sank during its maiden voyage en route to New York City from Southampton, England, killing about 1,500 passengers and crew members. The Titanic is perhaps better known among our generation because of James Cameron’s disaster movie, the Oscar-winning box-office hit that catapulted the then relatively unknown actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet into Hollywood stardom.
THE 1907 AND THE 170+-YEAR-OLD VEUVE CLIQUOT CHAMPAGNES
The champagnes that were said to have been recovered in good shape from the shipwreck were the 1907 Heidsieck Gout Americain (or “American Taste,” a phrase used at that time to mean that it was a much sweeter version) champagnes. No published report had stated how many good bottles were recovered, but in 2004, six bottles of this batch were rumored to have been sold to a rich Asian collector for an undisclosed and presumably sinful amount. The secret of these champagnes’ drinkability would have been lost forever, but by coincidence, the same 1907 Hiedsieck champagnes were discovered and recovered from another sunken ship in 1998. The Swedish vessel Jonkoping, shipwrecked in 1916, carried a few thousand bottles of the same champagne, of which some hundred were retrieved by divers. These are from the very same champagne lot I saw being sold at the Atlas Bar in Singapore for a whopping S$190,700 (P7.6 million) per bottle, and which are also said to be available in other glitzy places like the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Moscow for $275,000 (P13.75 million).
The ridiculous price tag is obviously because of its rarity and historic value, but these champagnes, when opened and tasted by wine experts, were astoundingly not only drinkable, but very much alive, and — incredibly — still have the fizz inside, but with more complex flavors, developed presumably from its underwater aging.
In 2010, as reported by National Geographic magazine, divers found some 168 bottles (another source said 79 bottles) of 19th century Champagne in a ship which had sunk to a depth of over 50 meters deep in the Baltic Sea. Markings visible on the corks showed that these Champagnes were produced by Champagne houses Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Heidsieck, and Juglar (already shut down in 1830s).
Not long after this discovery, Dominique Demarville, cellar master for Veuve Clicquot, was able to get his hands on some of their very old 19th century-made Champagnes. And trusting his impeccable knowledge of Champagnes and their Cliquot house style, and having read his comments that these 170-year-old Champagnes were still “sweet and fresh” made a convincing case that perhaps there is indeed aging potential underwater, not only for champagnes, but for still wines too.
True enough, Veuve Cliquot started experimenting with what it calls “Cellar in the Sea,” submerging 300 regular 750-ml. bottles and 50 magnums into the same Baltic Sea in 2016. This move was both symbolic of the 2010 discovery of its old vintage from the same site, but also for experimentation on the potential of underwater aging. Wine experts believe in the theory that consistent low temperature of below 5°C, constant pressure, and dark surroundings constitute near perfect conditions for wines to evolve slowly. Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin plans to monitor the underwater aging of these newly submerged wines for the next 40 years.
FAD OR NEW METHOD?
Champagnes were not the only bottles recovered from the many shipwrecks that happened throughout history — several still wines have been discovered too, but many were of less significance in terms of how old the recovered wines were, and from divers simply not reporting their underwater loot.
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin was not the first winery to try this underwater aging (Raul Perez from the Rias Baixas DO in Spain may be the first winery to have done so in 2003, using wines made from the Albarino grapes), but they certainly were the most visible adopter such that it may push this small trend into a wider scale. Already a handful of wineries, small and medium sized ones, have been experimenting with this aging method and all were perhaps inspired by the Titanic discovery.
One of the most aggressive wineries to try underwater aging is Napa Valley’s Mira Winery. It is credited with being the first to use the term “aquaoir” — a portmanteau created from aqua (water) and the French viticultural term terroir. Aquaoir means the aging condition of the submerged wine and the ensuing effects of underwater temperature, depth, pressure, light or lack of it, stability, motion, etc. that come in this form of aging wine. The same Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that is land-aged in a regular cellar is sold at $55 a bottle, while the underwater aged version (submerged for three months in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina), if available, is being sold for 10 times more or over $500. The press releases from a 2013 blind tasting of two Mira Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 vintage wines — comparing the underwater aged wine against the all-ground aged version — showed that the underwater aged wine seemed to have accelerated its evolution by around two extra years, making the wine more approachable than the all-ground cellared counterpart. Whether this was gimmickry or a real discovery of a new aging method, the higher price seemed justified.
Other than the perceived improvement in wine taste, the underwater aged wine’s price is quite hefty for a few other reasons — consider the labor intensive nature of dunking the wines (one has to hire professional divers), the correct use of metal cages and partitions and other equipment, and, of course, the huge risk and potential for losses due to salt water contamination and other foreseen and unforeseen damages. After all, we are still in the very early stage of studying the so-called aquaoir.
So many questions still need to be answered about underwater cellaring, like: If Mira wines accelerated with underwater cellaring, how could the Champagnes recovered from the shipwrecks survive for over a century? Do these two findings not contradict each other? Therefore, is underwater aging more for wine evolution or for wine preservation? So many unknowns still need answers.
Aside from the underwater cellaring done in France, Spain, and the US, it has also been done in Italy, Greece, and Croatia. Regulations — which really do not exist for this aging method — may also come in as political, social, and environmental groups may also soon be dipping their fingers into this subject. Will underwater aging become a norm? Only time can tell.
First I need to get my hands on some of these underwater-aged wines and taste them for myself. But on the theory alone, I am extremely tempted to do my own underwater cellaring with some of my younger wine collections. Perhaps in nearby Taal Lake where depths can reach 150 meters and be ideal for the positive effect of aquaoir. Retrieving these wines though may be another challenge…..
The author has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at email@example.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.