In 1998 about 2,000 bottles of the champagne Monopole Hiedsieck 1907 Diamant cuvee were recovered from a shipwreck in the Gulf of Finland, to the delight of the international wine community.
They were auctioned, as a novelty, and what a revelation this wine was when tasted in Hong Kong. It was golden in colour, but with not a bubble in sight. Yet how delicious it tasted. The acidity still offered definition, and the flavours were rich and round. The sea had preserved this lovely wine!
Forward to July 2010 to another shipwreck find – this time of 168 bottles of champagne beneath the Baltic Sea. A study was commissioned, seeking clues about historic winemaking practices, the results of which were announced earlier this year. Led by Professor Philippe Jeandet of the University of Reims, the study found, as reported by the BBC, very high sugar levels compared with today’s levels, and even a trace of arsenic. But the story regarding preservation was very similar to the Monopole: Professor Jeandet said the wine was “fabulous” with flavours of tobacco and leather; a taste which remained in the mouth for two to three hours.
Now, Italian winery Tenuta del Paguro, situated in the city of Ravenna in Emilia Romagna, is intentionally ageing its wine on the sea bed. A diver places a basket of between 30 to 100 bottles at a depth of 25-30 metres, where they are aged for 12 months in the wreck of the Paguro oil drilling platform, which itself sank in the Adriatic Sea in 1965.
The bottles emerge covered in not the cobwebs of the conventional cellar, but in algae. Co-founder is physisist Gianluca Grilli, who was fascinated by the potential of the dual results of wine ageing in the total absence of light; a constant temperature (9-12 degrees); different pressure; and wave action to consisantly move, or massage, molecules.
The wine-making process is entirely conventional, though even the reds see no oak. Each part of the process is carried out in stainless steel. The winery is working with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as Sangiovese and the region’s local white grape, Albana.
Practices such as bringing back amphorae for wine ageing and burying them in the earth, and almost all aspects of moon monitoring in the production of biodynamic grapes and the tasting of the subsequent wines, attract detractors. “I am also aware of the skepticism that stands around the results of this particular aging,” says Grilli of his under-the-sea practices. “But I usually take it as an extra reason of satisfaction when detractors change their mind, and they allways do!”
The wines are only in the second year of production but are already receving accolades including one very important one: the Albana 2012 was named Wine of the Show in London late last month at Bellavita 2015, an expo specialising in artesinal italian food and wine. “I was certainly surprised to win Bellavita,” says Grilli. “The competition was high, there were many excellent producers who deal with wine since decades ago, and I am new in the market.”
Albana is most often associated with light and acidic wine, though it can be crafted into a richer style when the grapes are semi dried, passito style. The award-winning Tenuta del Paguro Albana 2012 has a compelling style all of its own. It exhibits a searing linearity and purity with lively acids that finish with just a touch bitter. But it has mineral characters, too, and while pretty and floral and elegant on the nose, is substantial of body, with honeysuckle notes above honey, and citrus over orchard fruits.
The Sangiovese inhabits a similar ground to the Albana, being pure and linear, and it is more about deep dark fruit than the bright cherry so often associated with the grape. It is fresh with sea breezes. The Paguro Merlot is similarly marked with deep dark cherry at the back, with pronounced liquorice, but tends to be more earthy and mushroomy than fruity. Interestingly, when blended with 15 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon the resulting wine is more fruity with classic cassis notes and oh-so-gentle tannins: a lovely chance for these Bordeaux grapes to express themselves without the heaviness of oak treatment. They display, instead, the lightness of wave treatment.
Production currently stands at 3,000 to 4,000 bottles a year, and while that could potentially increase, Grilli says it will stay limited. “The submarine reef in which I keep the bottles needs the most careful environmental conservation, and I don’t mean to crowd the natural oasis of the precious life forms that inhabits the Paguro area,” he says.
“My victory is for me the victory of my city, Ravenna, and of my region, Emilia Romagna, which I would like to celebrate in every possible way,” Grilli said after the Bellavita awards.