Wine in Charleston Harbor is No Treasure Hunt Or Is It?
Charleston is a city famous for its rich history. Its reputation for preserving and cherishing its past is complimented today by a world-class food and beverage industry that supports a ranking as “Top City in the U.S.” So it’s only appropriate that Mira Winery looked for 21st century treasure in Charleston Harbor.
In 1978 professional diver Bill Kinsey recovered wine described as “incredibly good” from a British sailing ship that sank in 30 feet of water near the mouth of the Savannah Channel in 1840.
While searching for gold coins and other treasures on the sunken RMS Republic off the coast of Massachusetts, divers found bottles of wine that were on board when it sank in 1909. The quality of the wine found in these and many other “discoveries” suggest the wine was actually enhanced by the underwater elements.
These discoveries inspired three Frenchmen to ask a simple question: Does the sea hold the secret to truly great wines?
There are a limited number of factors that impact wine fermentation and aging – temperature, pressure, humidity, movement, light (or darkness) and oxygen. The ocean provides a unique environment with cold temperatures, constant pressure, little-to-no light and constant motion.
In 2007 Emmanuel Poirmeur was one of the first in modern times to take advantage of the sea for wine making using concrete tanks. Then in 2009 Piero Lugano stored 6500 bottles 196 feet into the sea off of Portofino Marine Park. Lugano told “Wine Spectator” that the absence of oxygen and slight cradle effect, created by the strong currents, encourage the optimal development of aromas. Bottles, barrels, concrete and plastic flextanks have all been in the oceans off Europe. And now Mira Winery is the first in the United States to age wine in the ocean, successfully aging 48 bottles in Charleston Harbor from February thru May 2013.
Our initial program submerged four cages holding bottles of 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon in Charleston Harbor for three months. We tested the wine aging process by measuring the impact of underwater pressure on the corks, the durability of the cages to ensure bottle security and collected data on the underwater temperature in comparison with surface temperature. This is just Phase I of our ocean aging experiments, with more to come.
Some of those who have gone before us were using the ocean primarily as a storage facility. We think this is just the start of the ocean’s gift to quality wine. Our program is the beginning of a learning process that will provide an additional prism to view the impact of the elements on the aging of wine. The first step is to identify the right location and understand its environment. Looking forward, some of the control factors can be altered, such as the we can begin to alter such as the type of containers used. What is the impact between a ready-to-drink wine versus a barrel with wine from an earlier aging process? We want to know.
We also want to continue to try and understand the difference between wine bottles stored on the ocean floor versus bottles aged in the warehouse absent natural light and maintaining a temperature of 59 degrees. Do these very similar but completely different environments have different impacts on the aging of wine? We want to know.
Our winemaker, Gustavo Gonzalez, was with Robert Mondavi for 17 years and routinely produced incredibly high scores for his red wine. His depth of experience will allow us to combine the old world traditions of wine making mixed with the ocean floor environment to truly understand the results they produce.
Our in-depth chemical analysis of the wine is not just a science experiment. We want to understand the impact on taste. Charleston sommeliers tasted the wine before we put it in the harbor and again after it was removed, comparing wine from the ocean versus wine from the warehouse. After all, our goal is to find methods to enhance flavor, experience and ultimately enjoyment.
At Mira Winery we like to say, “we have southern roots and Napa grapes.” Our roots define who we are and how we operate while our grapes give us the opportunity to produce world-class wines. The quality of our wine will define us while we will distinguish ourselves through passion for the experience and innovation.
Most conversations about fine wine today lead to a discussion of “terroir” – the soil, the weather, the people that produce the wine. Ten years from now, could the discussion about wine revolve around the ocean and the soil? Will wine enthusiasts be discussing “Aquaoir” – the ocean, the weather, and the people which produce the wine?
For generations, people have looked for secrets to making the finest wines in the world. It’s not clear what our results will be, but that didn’t stop those who have searched for earlier treasures. One thing we know for certain, Mira Winery looks forward to joining the history of Charleston.
Jim “Bear” Dyke, Jr. has been President of Mira Winery since 2011.