Sommeliers love to wax rhapsodic about the impact of terroir on wine, and I am no different. Wine is an agricultural product that speaks of the dirt, vines, plants, wind, rain, and climate of that year from that country, region, vineyard, and nook or rocky crag in the vineyard. We have a classic terroir tale involving a shipwreck, champagne, some questionable choices, and a French entrepreneur with friends in high places.
Years ago, I read about a shipwreck discovered off the Åland islands in the Baltic Sea, where amateur divers discovered numerous bottles of champagne. Upon discovering the bottles, a few were returned to the shore and tasted. To their shock and delight, they were sound. Authorities were alerted, and experts carefully brought up the intact bottles – 168 to be exact and sent them in for analysis. The bottles didn’t have labels on them. But, a few had a comet design on the cork and were later confirmed to be bottles of 1811 Veuve Clicquot on their way to the Russian market. This vintage was nicknamed the “Comet Vintage” due to a massive comet flying over Europe; it was said to have “blessed” the vintage. Based on records, this ship would have sunk in 1840, and the Veuve Clicquot headed to the Russian market would be on the sweeter side, which may have helped it survive 170 years underwater. Inspired by the shipwreck and being in the presence of bottles made during the tenure of Madame Clicquot, Veuve Clicquot launched Cellar in the Sea – a 40-year experiment to explore the influence of sea aging upon wine. It is in the same area where the shipwreck was found and is a poetic homage to the force of nature who changed Champagne with her radical ideas in marketing wine, inventing the riddling table (that is still used to this day), and much more - there is a fascinating book about her called The Widow Clicquot - it is not to be missed.
Here in the Baltic Sea, the water temperature maintains a 39.2-degree average, with no light, and the salinity levels are lower in this body of water than in the Atlantic Ocean. Two bottles of the classic Yellow Label and the Demi-Sec were compared to bottles conventionally aged on land. The Yellow Label aged underwater showed a richer expression of fruit like pineapple, savory notes, brined green olives, sage, truffles, and mushrooms. The Demi-Sec was less impacted, possibly due to the sugar levels. Still, it did offer a note of burnt caramel along with the classic peach, passion fruit, and marzipan that showed in the conventional counterpart. The traditionally aged Yellow Label showed the expected stone fruit, white flowers, brioche, and toasted almond with vibrant bubbles. Curiously, the underwater Champagne had slightly muted bubbles.
Across the world, inspired by the shipwreck and their attempts to track down a bottle of the Veuve Clicquot wine, Emanuele Azzaretto and Todd Hahn started a company called Ocean Fathoms. They would age wine off the coast of Santa Barbara in metal cages on the seafloor for a year. They claimed that the metals used in the cages also reacted with the salt water and would discharge energy like a battery through the water (and the wine) – insisting this would break down the tannins in the wine. When released to the market, these wines would fetch up to $500 a bottle. Unfortunately, the surrounding ecosystem had just enough time to grow on the cages, and when they would pull them up – the protected reef would suffer damage. When the state coastal commission was alerted to the cages, they sent a cease-and-desist letter. The company was guilty of illegally aging wine, selling alcohol without a license, and abetting investor fraud. Over 2,000 of their bottles were handed over and destroyed by authorities.
Other wineries taking a more successful leap into deep sea aging include Bordeaux’s Larrivet Haut-Brion (which aged a barrel of its 2009 vintage partially submerged), Gaia Winery in Greece, and Croatia’s Edivo winery. The Champagne house Leclerc Briant created a special cuvee, “Abyss,” in which this vintage champagne is aged 60 meters below the sea off the NW French coast. There are many more to note. Overall, winemakers have celebrated the notable salinity, freshness of fruit expression with more primary fruit (as no air comes into the bottle and nothing comes out), greater intensity of color, and a pronounced silkiness on the palate. Some attribute this to the protection from oxidation and the gentle rocking of the ocean waves. Scientists have noted no discernible difference between the underwater wines and land wines chemically, but suggest that the taste differences could be marked down to the influence of the terroir.
Terroir (the word) can trace its roots to “terra” in Latin – meaning earth, land, and soil. What if it’s not Earth? French entrepreneur Nicholas Gaume’s company Space Cargo Unlimited, and the University of Bordeaux’s wine institute, the ISVV, sent twelve bottles of wine up to the International Space Station via a Space X cargo ship for 14 months. The identity of the wines remained a secret until they returned to Earth for a comparative tasting of the space and earth wines. It was then revealed to be Petrus 2000 - it was chosen to study the impact of space upon a structured wine made from one grape (in this case, Merlot). Also, part of the study was 320 vine samples of Cabernet and Merlot for genome sequencing to see how space impacts their DNA. The space wine was reported to taste a few years older than the earth wine - even though they were both 2000 - but was sound, balanced, and exceptional. Now, when I see satellites up in the sky, I have to wonder if it’s not the private wine cellar of a billionaire.