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Teasing out Wine Making Secrets from the Sea

Does wine age better at sea? A trio of French wine lovers set out to test the ancient myth. 

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Neptune holds many secrets in his locked treasure chest under the sea, but a winemaker from the Bordeaux region may have found a key.

The story begins with Bruno Lemoine who is the vintner at the Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion in the southwest Bordeaux area of France. Bordeaux is one of the world’s primary wine making regions.

Wine has been aged here since the 8th century, so legends about wine are still fresh here even if 1,000 years old. One of those ancient legends intrigued Lemoine, so he got together with two skilled barrel makers and an oyster farmer to test this legend’s veracity.

Lemoine explained that vintners had heard that wine aged in the sea was far superior to wine aged in dark warehouses. Some truth to that legend appeared in 2010 when divers salvaged ancient bottles of wine from the seabed of the Baltic Sea. The divers recovered bottles of Juglar and Veuve Clicquot from a 200-year-old shipwreck.

Expert wine tasters flew into tiny Aaland island off the coast of Finland to sample the treasure. At Mariehamn, the capital, samples were poured from the shipwreck bottles into sparkling glasses for a lucky few to taste.

The tasters noted the golden color and pronounced the bouquet as intense. It was like nothing they had ever tasted. The champagne’s strongest notes were linden blossoms and lemon peels. The tasters judged the flavor exciting and historical.

It resembled nothing like a champagne today because two centuries past, vintners had a different idea of how a champagne should be made. One taster commented that it was like walking into an alien world that presented different smells and tastes. In the end, the ancient bottles of wine fetched $136,000 at the Finland auction.

The reports of the champagne’s exciting taste after two centuries at the bottom of the Baltic Sea intrigued Lemoine enough to set up an experiment. As these things happen, Lemoine had what he considered an exceptional vintage to put to the test in the sea.

He first rang up his mate, Pierre-Guillaume Chiberry, and asked him to construct two 56-liter barrels made of exacting wood that could be used to age his red wine an extra six months.

The experiment called for both barrels to be filled. One would be stored in the cellar at the chateaux and the other sank into the sea. For that, Lemoine rounded up an expert oyster man to sink the cask in the Bay of Arcachon oyster beds.

Joel Dupuch and Bruno Lemoine
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Chiberry gathered up his top barrel makers and set out to make exacting casks that were identical. Each would be made and fitted by hand.

After the barrels were done, the crew pedaled to Lemoine’s vineyard, with the barrels in tow, to pour the tannic red wine into the barrels. The wine had already aged two years.

The barrel at the chateau was christened Tellus, the name of the Roman goddess of land, while the other was dubbed the seaworthy name of Neptune. Next, the oyster farmer picked up Neptune and assigned it a resting place inside a concrete crib at the oyster bed.

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