A column last December about wine cellared in a disused mine attracted comment and questions about storage of wine. For publication in week of 18 February 2019.
A wine’s provenance – its source, life cycle and quality of storage – is vital information for serious collectors. In recent years winemakers have tried a range of ways to store their best products. The most common has involved water, though in recent years mines also started being used as cellars.
Storing wine under the sea gained much publicity in 2003 when Raúl Pérez in Spain first aged Albarino from Rías Baixas in a bay. This kind of environment – cold, dark, with constant pressure and no oxygen – can preserve a wine well beyond its average lifespan on land.
The discovery in 2010 of 168 bottles of champagne aboard a 19th-century shipwreck in the Baltic Sea appears to have accelerated the trend. This champagne fetched high prices at auction, presumably because of its age and rarity.
The temperature of the water is important, as is the depth at which the wine is placed. For every 10 metres of depth the pressure on the bottle increases by one atmosphere.
The Gaia winery in Santorini, the Veuve Clicquot and Louis Roederer Champagne houses, Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion in France, the Bisson estate in Liguria and California’s Mira Winery have all employed ocean storage.
Mira called the method “aquaoir” (a play on “terroir”) and concluded that underwater storage accelerated ageing. Its 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, underwater for three months, was reported to taste as if it had aged an extra two years compared with a land-aged version.
In 2014 Clicquot initiated a “Cellar in the Sea” experiment to see how the house’s Champagne would age over half a century. We only have 45 more years to wait to see the results.
At the annual blind tasting of organic wines in London in July last year only two gold medals were awarded in the sparkling wine sector. One was for the 2012 cuvée Abyss from the biodynamic Leclerc Briant brand made by Hervé Jestin. It was aged in the sea for a year at 60 metres.
In the Picpoul sub-region of the Langedoc Julie Benau has stored her “Libero” in the sea since 2012. Rather than submerge wine after it has been bottled, Benau sinks four barrels which spend six months in an oyster bed at eight metres in the basin of the Etang de Thau lagoon south of Montpellier. Tidal movement acts as a form of lees stirring. Benau says the underwater wine is very different from her regular Picpoul.
In Australia Ben Portet, son of Dominic, and in South Africa Craig Hawkins are both experimenting with submerging barrels in tanks filled with fresh water. All the above begs the question: Will SCUBA training become part of the curriculum at wine schools?
Meanwhile, Cantina Tramin in Italy’s Alto-Adige have taken storage to higher levels – cellaring their new premium white inside a disused silver mine at 2,000 metres above sea level.
Willi Stürz, technical director and chief winemaker, wanted to see how his new wine, named Epokale, would age. The first vintage was 2009. In August 2010 staff carried about 1,200 bottles to the Monteneve silver mine in Ridanna. The number of bottles has gradually risen. About 3,000 bottles of the latest vintage are stored in the mine.
The 2009, and all subsequent vintages, have been stored at 2,000 metres above sea level about 3km inside the mountain. Humidity of 90 per cent is constant all year.
Last year Wine Advocate awarded its first perfect score of 100 points to the 2009 Epokale. It was the first time the magazine has given such an award to a wine not produced in Tuscany or Piedmont. Until then all perfect scores had gone to Barolo and Brunello wines.
It was strange being in the mine, about 120km north of the winery in Tramin. It was so cold that my breath condensed immediately. The only light came from the lamp on my helmet. The walls were covered with white lace-like fungus and the floors were muddy because of water dripping from the ceiling. Water comes from the melting ice on the top of the mountain 450 metres above. It was a surreal experience, and I was glad to be back outside in the sunshine.
Stürz said that wines stored in the mine were better than those cellared in the winery because of constant temperature and pressure. “Constant high humidity, darkness, silence and above all the constant fresh temperature of 11 [degrees] Celsius are ideal conditions for harmonious maturation and ageing of the wine. Also atmospheric pressure is lower at such a high elevation. Less oxygen is forced into the bottle and the oxygen content inside the mine is lower compared with the air outside.”
Bibenda, Italy’s association of sommeliers, gave Stürz the title of best winemaker in the country in 2003. The next year Gambero Rosso, Italy’s prestigious wine guide, named Stürz Italian winemaker of the year. He was born in Tramin and has done 27 vintages at Cantina Tramin.
In his monumental book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, wine expert Dr Ian D’Agata noted that centuries ago the non-aromatic Traminer grape mutated into the spicy variant called Gewürztraminer, which is mostly associated with Alsace in France.
Traminer originated around the town of Tramin in Alto Adige, where Cantina Tramin is located. The suffix “er” is how the German language creates the possessive form. The prefix “Gewürz” means spicy or aromatic, though in the context of grapes it also means “exuding intense aromas”.
Wolfgang Klotz, director of sales and marketing, said the ideal conditions in the mine could not be reproduced even with the best cellar. “Ageing in the mine gives the wine an excellent balance without losing freshness and fruit and at the same time maintaining its crispness.”
Grapes for Epokale came from two of the oldest vineyards near Nussbaumer on the south-eastern slope of Mendola mountain. Until Epokale was developed, Cantina Tramin’s Nussbaumer has been recognised as one of the best wines in Italy. Nussbaumer 2012 was named Italy’s best white wine in 2013.