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In the drink: a cool salty cellar for wines of note

Discovering well-preserved bottles in ancient underwater wrecks is one thing, but placing wine to mature under the sea is now a boom business in France, writes Samantha David

Finding innovative things to do with underground spaces doesn’t end on land. Maturing wine under the sea is becoming something of a trend in France and various companies in the Basque country and Brittany are offering wine-makers this service.

The trend had a boost back in 2010 when a shipwrecked trade schooner was discovered in the Baltic Sea, just off the coast of Finland. It contained 168 bottles of champagne. They had been resting 50 metres under the sea for 170 years, and yet it had not deteriorated. A team of scientists at the University of Reims analysed the wine, and were able to deduce a lot about winemaking techniques of the era. (The inscriptions on the corks also provided clues as to their origins, the labels having completely disappeared.)

Once the wine was oxygenated, in tastings, wine experts said the taste was said to be “toasted, spicy, leathery and smoky”. Eventually, some of the bottles were auctioned off, achieving prices of up to €100,000 for single bottles. The conclusion in winemaking circles was that wines like being kept under the sea.

Emmanuel Poirmeur matures his wine under the sea just off the coast of Saint-Jean-de Luz in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. “I like to do the unexpected, I like to appear in strange places, and making wine for me is a way of expressing myself, so of course I have to do it in an unusual way!”

He says he has always been passionate about wine, which is why he specialised in the subject when very young. He travelled widely through the wine-making world, in Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Italy and the wine-making regions in France.

He returned to the Basque country and founded Egiategia l’Atelier in 2007. “Truly, from growing the vines right through to selling the finished product, making wine is creative, expressive and to appreciate it fully, you have to understand the entire process.”

It was when he was working for Chandon in Argentina 2001 that he realised the parameters required for a perfect second fermentation were naturally fulfilled under the sea, so when he founded his own company naturally the first thing he did was protect his idea.

“It’s dark under the sea, the temperature and pressure is constant, and the sea is constantly moving. What could be better?” So since 2008, Egiategia has fermented their wines 15 metres under the sea in the bay of Saint Jean-de-Luz. (Wines are fermented twice, and the first fermentation is carried out on land, at the domaine.) “During fermentation, yes the sugars are turned into alcohol but the second fermentation is also the stage when secondary flavours are developed, and due to conditions under the sea, the flavours released are unique.”

That is why, says Mr Poirmeur, his wine has a truly distinctive taste. It is not just matured under the sea once it has been bottled, part of the process of producing it is actually carried out under the waves. Not only that, but he has his own vineyards on the cliff-tops where the salt wind blows. “I have two hectares of classic chardonnay vines, and we work the vineyard by hand, using the least possible chemicals, and the most environmentally friendly methods possible.” He also buys in grapes from other local vineyards.

It is possible to visit Emmanuel Poirmeur’s caves in Ciboure by appointment, for a guided tour and explanation of his wine-making methods, and/or for a tasting. Emerging from the cool darkness of the cellars with their rows of wooden barrels, you stand in the sun on the roof-top terrace to taste his wines, where you can smell the faint aroma of salt in the sea breeze coming off the Atlantic. He produces fresh, drinkable Dena Dela white, rosé and red wines. As a non-expert, however, the one which seemed most unusual to me was his Artha perlant. It’s a slightly sparking (pétillant) very fruity red wine. Perfect to accompany the strong tastes of Basque cuisine.

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