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Solving the Mystery of Ocean-Aged Wine

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Among the rarest of treats for lovers of wine is that which has been
raised from the depths of the sea. Underwater treasure hunters
occasionally recover caches of wine from shipwrecks, invariably
resulting in a flurry of interest from around the globe. One recent
example involved the 2012 auction of champaign recovered from a 19th
century shipwreck. Wine enthusiasts bid more than $74,000 for some of
the 79 bottles raised from the frigid waters off the coast of Finland.

Nothing but time can account for the uniqueness of a wine recovered
after 170 years under the sea but there is something about this
"ocean-aged" wine that excites more than the imagination. Wine aged in
the ocean rather than on land possesses characteristics of taste that
are subtle, yet distinct. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this
is that nobody really knows why. That's what Mira Winery is trying to
figure out. During the first week of November, the Napa Valley,
California winery will embark on the next phase of an ongoing
experiment to learn more about this "aquaoir" vintage aged beneath the
waves.

This new phase follows an initial effort in which four cases of 2009
cabernet sauvignon were submerged off the cost of Charleston, South
Carolina last winter and ocean-aged for three months. When that wine
was hauled to the surface in May, 2013, it was put through an unlikely
combination of tests involving a sommelier and chemists. The results
were surprising. The sommelier declared that after three months of
ocean aging, the 2009 vintage had been transformed into a 2007.

The unique characteristics of this aquaoir wine are not fully
understood. What is understood is that ocean aging produces a
different wine. These changes may have something to do with the gentle
rocking of the sea and shifting underwater currents, keeping the wine
in a perpetual state of motion. Temperature may be a factor, as ocean
temperatures rise and fall with the seasons. The total darkness
resulting from anchoring the aquaoir in water too deep for light to
penetrate, otherwise called ocean dark, may be part of the equation
along with the pressure of the sea on objects anchored in its depths.

We hope to learn more in our next experiment in which eight cases of
wine will be submerged in the tidewaters of the North Atlantic.
Coinciding with the second phase of our research is a seven city tour
for blind taste testing by a select group of 15 people in each city to
compare the aquaoir to the same wine aged on land. After all, the
palate is the best judge of wine.

Accompanying this emphasis on the taste of the wine are the mechanical
and chemical aspects of the experiment. Initiating the ocean aging
process itself is a considerable undertaking, involving specially
constructed cages that allow the wine to be free enough to move with
the tides and currents of the ocean without risking breakage in the
unforgiving environment beneath the water.

The individual bottles are loosely secured to boards in a modular
fashion that prevents damage within the welded steel cage before each
cage, holding 12 bottles of wine, is prepared for submersion. They are
then guided by a diver to the seabed where they will be anchored and
remain so until next spring when they will be hoisted back to the
surface for testing and chemical analysis.

Nobody can be certain of what clues, if any, we might glean from this
experiment or whether it can shed light on the mystery of what happens
to ocean-aged wine. The chemical analysis of the aquaoir used in our
first experiment showed that the wine's pH, alcohol, and volatile
acidity were about the same as land-aged wine, with a variance in
turbidity, or the suspension of microscopic particles. Might this
account for the subtle difference between ocean-aged and land-aged
wine? Nobody knows; that's what we want to find out.

There's an undeniable intrigue surrounding aquaoir but the more
important issue is what we can learn from ocean-aging and how it can
be applied to traditional, land-aged wines. That is the ultimate goal.
And if we can enjoy a few glasses of a fine, mysterious vintage along
the way, so much the better.