When you take a sip from a glass of bubbly, do you ever pay any thought as to what happened before it got there?
Any oenophile will know that the best sparkling wines require ageing – by law Champagne must spend at least 15 months ageing in the bottle before release and many other high-end wine regions set minimum ageing requirements – so there’s little doubt it will have spent some time in a cellar. But have you ever considered that cellar might not necessarily be on dry land?
The niche but rapidly growing trend for underwater wine ageing began quite accidentally in 2010, after divers in the Baltic Sea found 168 bottles of Champagne in a 19th century schooner ship wreck. They brought the bottles, which included bottles of Juglar, Heidsieck and Veuve Clicquot, to the surface and opened one, not expecting much from the contents. Surprisingly, not only was the wine drinkable, but it tasted pretty good, so good in fact that one of the bottles sold at auction a year later for over £24,000.
Since then underwater ‘wineries’ have been established in the seas off Croatia, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and South Africa. There’s even an underwater wine conference in Bilbao, near to where the world’s first underwater winery, Crusoe Treasure, was founded in the Bay of Plentzia, dedicated to the movement.
What’s so special about sea-aged wines?
The idea of sea ageing is that the perpetual mixing of water keeps a constant temperature in complete darkness, acting like a natural under water cellar. It’s said to accentuate flavours, intensify colour and aromatics and slow down the ageing process.
A number of well-known sparkling wine brands have decided to sea age some of their wines including Veuve Clicquot, which has submerged Champagne in the Baltic Sea (this time intentionally), Louis Roederer, which has sunk bottles of bubbly off the coast of Normandy, and Gaia Winery in Greece, which is trialling bottles matured beneath the Mediterranean.
And now its England’s turn as Exton Park, an award-winning vineyard in Hampshire is set to release the UK’s first sea-aged sparkling wine later this year.
Working with sea-ageing specialist Amphoris, Exton Park submerged 200 bottles of its 2014 vintage Blanc de Blancs 60 metres below the sea off the coast of Brest in Brittany in 2018. The wines were retrieved after 12 months and then underwent a further two years ageing on dry land.
“Innovation is at the heart of what we do at Exton Park and so we’re all about pushing the boundaries of English wine,” explains the vineyard’s managing director, Kit Ellen. “We decided to age our ‘60 Below’ wines undisgorged, (still on lees after their second fermentation in bottle), which has never been done before and, due to wine laws, can’t be done in Champagne,”
Kit explains that the tides and currents under the sea therefore not only help to keep a constant temperature but the continuous movement has a similar effect to lees stirring, which adds to the complexity and richness of the wine.
What does England’s first sea-aged sparkling wine taste like?
To measure the effect of 12 months of sea ageing, Exton Park also aged bottles of the same wine 60 metres above sea level and last year the two wines were tasted, for the first time, side by side with significant results.
“We found that the sea-aged wine was more rounded with greater depth in mouthfeel and it had softer, riper flavours than the ‘60 Above’,” says Kit, who plans to release both wines on allocation in time for Christmas 2023. “We also submerged 200 bottles of our 2014 Blanc de Noirs, which we plan to retrieve from the sea this year.”
While Exton Park is the first English wine producer to submerge sparkling wine below sea, it isn’t the only time English wine has been cellared underwater. In April 2021, online wine merchant The English Vine dropped 200 bottles of English wine, including wines from Ridgeview, Nyetimber and Chapel Down, 25 metres below the sea’s surface off the Kent coast, which are yet to be retrieved.
Whether this ‘current’ trend will catch on among more English winemakers, we’ll have to wait and ‘sea’…