Study in Charleston Harbor investigates unique flavor of wines from sunken ships

The Associated PressMay 6, 2014 

— Vintners are plunging cases of wine into the waters off South Carolina, hoping to solve a nagging riddle: What creates that unique flavor in bottles recovered from sunken ships?

Wine has been aged in the ocean by wineries both in Europe and on the West Coast. But Mira Winery of St. Helena, Calif., is doing a systematic analysis of the effects of ocean aging.

On Tuesday, divers recovered seven cases of Cabernet Sauvignon that were submerged last November in Charleston Harbor. An eighth case will remain under water for an entire year.

Last year at this time, the winery recovered four cases that had been submerged for three months.

Mira, owned by Charleston resident Jim "Bear" Dyke Jr., is working to determine what effect water motion, light, temperature and other factors have on aging wine.

When the wine that was submerged last year for three months was analyzed, it seemed to acquire bottle aging in a short time in the water, said Gustavo Gonzalez, the winemaker for Mira. In effect, a 2009 vintage, after three months, tasted like a 2007 vintage, he said.

So will aging the wine six months make a 2009 vintage seem like a 2005 vintage?

“That would be something we would want to learn,” Gonzalez said Tuesday after opening one of the recovered bottles so a small sample could be poured and shipped overnight to the West Coast, where it will be analyzed in a lab.

“If we can really zero in on that one effect in terms of aging, maybe there’s a way you can do that on shore,” he said. “Maybe it’s as simple as increasing the temperature over the course of time.”

Gonzalez said more wine will be submerged this fall. In the future, he said, different varieties of wines will also be tested. He said it would probably take years of experiments to answer all the questions about ocean aging.

Dyke said a lot has changed in a year.

“We didn’t really know what we were doing last time which is how a lot of great experiments start,” he said. “Now, I think we may have identified a process that has the potential to revolutionize the way an entire industry thinks about aging wine.”

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