You've probably heard stories about shipwrecks discovered where bottles of wine were found. Some of the wines uncovered have been 100 years old or more. There's been interest in what these wines taste like and how well they did - or didn't age - in their watery cellars. That's the inspiration behind Mira Winery's "aquaoir," a clever play on the word terroir, which means how a wine expresses the soil and climate it grows in, among other things.
"Our inspiration was to try something different, so we did an experiment," says Mira Winery President Jim "Bear" Dyke. He's hosting night six of a seven city tour, dubbed the "Are You Dirty or Wet Tour" (they gave out concert t-shirts), a blind tasting of the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, one land aged the traditional way, in a dry cellar, and one ocean aged at the bottom of the sea. To their knowledge, no bottles of Cabernet have ever been ocean aged.
Mira, a Napa Valley winery, invited 15 people in each city: Charleston, SC, Washington D.C., New York, Palm Beach, Little Rock, San Francisco and Los Angeles to take part in the tasting to find out if there is any difference between the two wines. Each group was a mix of wine industry professionals - retailers, wholesalers, sommeliers, writers. I was lucky enough to be invited to the San Fran tasting.
Back in February Mira submerged four cases of its 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, already bottled but not labeled, 60 feet under Charleston Harbor. Why there? "We wanted to find a place where we could keep the temperature constant and keep it at cellar temperature," says Mira winemaker Gustavo Gonzalez. Jim happens to live in Charleston, "and he looked on his computer and saw that the water temperature was 57 degrees, so we said let's do it in Charleston."
At this point, both wines had been in bottle for about a year. Mira typically barrel ages its Cab 18 months in a mix of new and used French oak and bottle ages the wine for 12 months before release.
The bottles were put in protective cages, and instead of foil capsules, they had wax capsules, to protect the corks and to prevent any seepage of salt water into the bottles. A dive team attached the cages to the bottom of the harbor with screws; the four cages were attached to each other. Each bottle was attached to a board in a manor that the bottles could move a little with the ebb and flow of the tide.
Three months later they went to recover the bottles. Jim says they couldn't find them right away. They had the surface GPS but not for the sea floor. They eventually found the cages (whew). "When the bottles first came up they were covered in barnacles," says Jim. "One of the guys started scrubbing that off and I went no stop you are missing part of the point." Perhaps that barnacle covering is part of the aquaoir. There was a bottle on display and from the outside it does look like a bottle that's been aged a long time.
What Mira wanted to find out is how the pressure, temperature, tide flow and no light exposure would affect the wine. Would there be any difference in the ocean aged wine versus the land aged wine? Would it be a good or bad affect? That's what the 15 of us where there to help them determine.
We got down to business and started swirling, sniffing and sipping. Mira had a questionnaire for us to fill out as we tasted. First question: is there a color difference in the two wines, A and B? I said yes. B was a little more opaque purple and concentrated. Second question: Is there a difference in aroma? I said yes here too. B's nose was more fruit forward; there was a little green on A's nose. At this point I was thinking that B was the ocean aged wine.
Next question: Do you think there will be a difference in taste? Yes I do. Our group in San Francisco is the only group to have any tasters, two in this case, who after smelling and sipping the wine said they didn't think there was any difference between A and B.
Then we got to taste. For wine A I got blackberry, cassis, herbal notes, cocoa and tannins were present but not too rough. For wine B I got a more fruit forward wine, no green or herbal notes and bigger tannins, just a more concentrated wine. For that reason, my answer to the last questions, is A or B the ocean aged wine, I went with A. It just tasted like a wine that had a little more age on it and my thinking was the ocean aged wine would show a more accelerated aged wine profile.
I was wrong. B was the ocean aged wine. The room was split about 50-50 on this, and Gustavo said that's pretty much how it has played out in the previous five tastings. "The wine is much more open," he says, something he think has to do with the pressure under the ocean. Gustavo also says he prefers the ocean aged wine. I do too.
Mira is already ocean aging a second batch of wine, this time eight cases of the 2011 Cabernet. The bottles will stay in the water for six months. Gustavo expects the results to be different, not only because the wine will age three months longer in the ocean, but it's also a very different vintage in terms of flavor profile. They etched the bottles prior to submerging them, so that they can keep more of the barnacles and stuff that attaches to the bottle while aging in the underwater cellar.
I found this fascinating, having gone into the tasting skeptical that this was more a marketing gimmick than anything. There is a difference in the wine. The Mira folks are serious about this. They monitored the bottles every day -- tracking stats like temperature, pressure and currents. They admit it's not a cost effective method for aging wine, especially on a bigger scale. But they want to do more experiments and plan to try different varietals and different ocean locations to see what happens. I look forward to tasting the results.