By Antonio Palacios
1-. The state of the art of underwater treasure:
The ageing of beverages submerged in the sea has its origins in different bottled beverages (wine, champagne, distilled liquors…) found decades and even centuries ago in the cellars of sunken shipwrecks and that after having been sampled, were found to still have acceptable sensory characteristics even after such long periods of time.
One example of the above is represented by the periodical auctions of bottles found in shipwrecks, such as the one that took place recently, (September 2011) in Singapore, in which, according to various internet sites, a bottle of champagne retrieved in 2010 from the Baltic sea, was sold. This bottle, whose age was estimated to be 170 years old, was sold for 40,000 dollars and, according to the enologists who tested it, contained organoleptic characteristcs that while different to those which one would expect from a champagne, were still good.
Based upon these experiences, an initiative was set up in 2010 by the company, Bajoelagua Factory and the town council of Plentzia, consisting of the creation of the Underwater Laboratory for the Ageing of Beverages (Spanish, LSEB Plentzia), a company based in Bilbao and dedicated to various activities related to oceonography (underwater inspections, school activities, web disclosure, audiovisual productions). The laboratory is located at 20 metres depth in the Bay of Plentzia (Biscay) and is equipped with systems for measuring water temperatures and movements. The same laboratory also has various units in which bottles are placed for their treasuring underwater, in direct contact with circulating water. Since two years, they have experience with the underwater treasuring of red and white wines, coming from different regions of origin, from young wines to grand reservas and from different varieties of grapes. The LSEB study was also made extensively with other beverages, such as cider, beer and liquors. The study looked at here in detail is the only one of its kind in the world and has already amassed great experience and know how in the process of underwater ageing, which after having been involved in three years of research means being able to commercialize wines already treasured and already perfectly prepared to be treasured below the sea.
We can say that the location of the underwater wine cellar in the Cantabrian Sea is an ideal and unique setting due to its unique characteristics: the strength of the waves that create a constant turbulence and block the passage of light, and the heavy tides. All this produce original wines with a high quality.
There are some references to be found in the press and on the internet, with regard to the supposed effects of maintained submersion upon the sensory characteristics of the wines. It is normally noted that submerged wines show slightly different characteristics compared to wines kept in cellars and they are given diverse related expressions of smell and balance etc. At the same time, the justification of the beneficial effect of immersion is usually based upon the conservation temperature (relatively low and with hardly any fluctuations), the absence of light and the effect of the movement of the sea water on the bottles. However, no scientific publication has been found, describing the effects of this practice.
2-. Important factors in the underwater ageing:
With regards to the treasuring of the wines, it’s evolution is influenced by diverse factors, from which, the following may be highlighted:
- Time. In general terms, the longer the time period, the better the development of the wine will be. Bearing in mind that:
- there will be a time in which the objectives of underwater treasuring will have been realized and the development will slow down to such an effect that it ceases to be of interest, both organoleptically as well as economically.
- a minimum time is necesary in order to be able to appreciate the effects of the sea on the organoleptic properties of the wine.
- Temperature. Small but frequent thermal changes in the underwater treasuring increase the speed of the chemical transformations that take place in the wine, accelarating it’s positive evolution.
- Light. Some radiation leads to different chemical phenomena, meaning an acceleration of the wine’s deterioration. In that respect, being kept in the dark, the submerged bottles are constantly protected.
- Pressure. Even though no scientific studies have been found about how pressures greater than that of the atmosphere can affect it’s characteristics, more than 3 bars of atmospheric pressure over long periods of time should have an effect.
- Gravity. Much less gravity should be taken into account for the submerged crianza than for the conventional crianza. This lack of gravity could have a very interesting effect on the colloidal structure, especially in red wines.
- Polyphenolic content and other antioxident compounds. Polyphenols, like other reductive compounds, protect wine from oxidation. They are also responsible for the structure and the ‘body’ of the wine. Underwater treasuring produces, amongst others, changes to the phenolic structure of the wine.
- Acidity and pH. An acceptable acidity and a low pH, are without a doubt, favourable to the process of underwater treasuring, meaning a greater capacity for the development of an adequate maturity.
3-. How can we explain the effects of Underwater Treasure?
Based on the studies, realized by LSEB, we can highlight the following factors to be taken into account in the process of creating wines under the sea:
- Moderate thermal changes. The heat content of sea water is represented by energy radiation that comes from the sun. Its specific heat has an elevated value when compared to specific heat from any other exisiting substance on the face of the earth; this bestows upon the sea an extraordinary capacity to store heat and because of this property it can act as a huge temperature moderator. The thermal oscilations will be minimal, but very frequent, not just during the cycle between day and night but also during the seasons, warmer in the summer and cooler in winter. Thermal changes provoke small and frequent changes in the volume of the wine, which without a doubt has an effect on the final sensory properties.
- Henry’s Law of gas dissolution. Henry’s Law explains that at a constant temperature, the amount of a given gas that dissolves in a given type and volume of liquid is directly proportional to the partial pressure of that gas in equilibrium with that liquid or solid. This is the reason why the transfer of oxygen can be greater underwater, which in turn favours co-pigmentation and the stabilization of the colour of red wine, a noted effect in the treasured wines.
- Dalton’s Law. Dalton’s law states that the total pressure exerted by the mixture of non-reactive gases is equal to the sum of the partial pressures of individual gases. The partial pressure of oxygen is around 160 mmHg at sea level (0.21 bars) and around 400 mmHg at 15 metres depth (assuming 2.5 bars). The cork does not permit the bottle’s interior and exterior pressures to balance, but it is relatively permeable to oxygen, which results in a favourable medium for the oxygen to pass from the water through to the wine, raising the potential redox of the wine, which in turn, once the wine is treasured and when the bottle is open, means it is ready for consumption without any need for decantering.
- The propagation of light in sea water. The propagation of light depends upon the medium through which it passes. Light does not travel at the same speed in the air as in water. When light spreads through a watery medium, its intensity greatly decreases, an attenuating phenomena which has two fundamental causes: absorbtion: light energy is converted into another type of energy, generally heat or chemical energy. This absorbtion is produced by seaweed, which uses light as a source of energy, suspended organic and inorganic material, dissolved inorganic compounds and the water itself in its own right. The result of this scattering (dispersion) phenomena is the collision of the beam of light with the suspended particles, provoking multiple reflections, making light penetration difficult and therefore also its activity on the wine, thus avoiding negative effects.
- The sea is an enormous source of accumulated energy that is available in different forms: energy from the ocean currents, constant and well localized, osmosis energy due to the high saline concentration, oceanic thermal energy, tidal energy which moves immense amounts of water in a rythmic and predictable way according to the moon’s cycles, and wave energy. All this results in an authentic biodynamic system for wine creation.
- The kinetic sea. The sea is a huge source of stored energy that is available in different formats: marine energy, osmotic energy due to the high salt concentration, the oceanic thermal energy, tidal energy, which moves water rhythmically according to lunar cycles, and waves energy. Each of those elements helps to build a biodynamic system to age wines. We may be talking about a system where the influence of the moon and its cycles are transmitted with strong intensity. (See Figure 1)
The movement of water in the oceans creates a vast warehouse of tidal energy. This energy reverberates on the bottles, even more so with the existence of inert and organic desposits, and including the added presence of living life forms on the glass. The external surface of the bottle ceases to be smooth and offers a greater resistance to the movement of the water, producing a continual vibrating effect in the interior of the bottle and within the liquid itself. (See Figure 2)
4-. Effects observed at the sensory and chemical level in wines treasured under the sea
4.1-. Results of the sensory description analysis
In September 2011, the Excell Iberica Laboratory in Logrono, Rioja, organized various tastings with a panel of 10 expert tasters, carrying out blind tastings of 2 white wines, 1 cider and 4 red wines, submerged during 12 months compared to their terrestrial ‘partners’. The sensory analysis of the same wines resulted in, amongst others, these first preliminary conclusions:
- Visual phase
- Greater intensity of colour and more shine.
- The colour was better conserved, less evolved. (Greenish tones in white wines and blues in red wines).
- Aromatic phase:
- They are cleaner, with no obvious reductions.
- Decrease in herbaceous and vegetable aromas.
- Greater intensity, complexity and aromatic concentration. Highlighting the primary aromas of fruit and floral as well as minerals.
- Sharper wooden aromas.
- Taste phase:
- Greater volume and freshness.
- Agreeable silkiness in the tactile senses of the phenol components.
- Great balance along with acidity.
4.2-. Results from the standard sensory analysis
On continuation, we will show the statistical results obtained through the Analysis of Principal Components (Spanish:ACP) applied to the results of a tasting organized with 8 red wines (4 pairs of terrestrial wines and their respective underwater wines) following the standardized system ISO 11035 using agreed and quantifiable descriptions and with the participation of 10 wine tasters, qualified and previously trained in tasting methods and in the wines of the project.
Through this system, it is possible to project the wines onto a sensory map where, on one side, the graphics on the left represent the utilized descriptions of the tasting file in each of the three phases of the tasting, the olfactory phase, tasting and retronasal. In the graphics on the right the tasted wines are represented. To gain a better understanding of the results of the ACP, we can relate the wine positions on the map according to the crosses and their coordinates, with the descriptions that are in the position nearest to them on the other factorial map. The descriptions that are to be found nearest to the periphery of the circle are those that have stood out best in the tasted wines; aromas such as oak, intensity, pureness, concentration, complexity, floral and fresh fruit, all of which are very close together as can be seen in figure 3 of the treasured wines.
In the aromatic phase the following factorial map was obtained to explain the variation of 45,83%. Here it is possible to check how wines treasured under the sea (in the blue colour) are situated in the best positions near to the variables which define purity, concentration, complexity, floral aromas, fresh fruit and spices, except for the Crianza Rioja wine which is closed with cork and more connected with roasting aromas. (See figure 3).
In the taste phase an explanation for the variable of 61,68% was obtained. Once again, the wines treasured underwater are situated in the area of the factorial map nearest to the variables that define balance, freshness, tannins, volume and positive global evaluation, except for Ribera wine with oak, that did not differentiate itself from its terrestrial pair. (See figure 4).
In the retronasal phase of the tasting, an explanation for the 50,65% variation was obtained. There exists a great difference in the samples depending upon their place of ageing. The underwater samples, on the left of the factorial map, are connected to descriptions for positive global evaluation, floral, fresh fruit, mature fruit, roasting, minerals, oak aromas, dry fruits, intensity and persistence. (See figure 5).
The conclusion of this tasting confirmed that underwater treasuring had provoked a clear effect in the wines at an organoleptic level, strengthening the intense fruit and floral aromas with a greater complexity in the nose. In the mouth, the sensations of balance and freshness were increased as well as the presence of grape tannins and a double effect in the retronasal, on one hand the aromas of mineral and wood and on the other, very intense floral and fruit.
4.3-. Results of the hedonic sensory analysis:
A hedonic test of preferences was realized, asking the tasters to create a preference ranking. The results show that only in the case of Malvasia sweet wine was the terrestrial sample appreciated more. In the rest of the tasted wines, the hedonic preference was always in favour of the underwater samples, except in the sample of Ribera with oak where there was not a clear preference between either of the two samples. (See figure 6).
4-4.- Results of the chemical analysis:
In another study model, routine chemical parameters of 19 different wines coming from various regions of origin and of different varieties were studied in the laboratory.
The end results show differences found between terrestrial wines and underwater ones. The main difference was centered upon the anthocyanin pigment parameter, being greater in submerged wines. Another differentiated parameter was the tartaric stability, given that it is positive in underwater wines and negative in some terrestrial samples.
In the majority of cases, the oxygen content increases in submerged samples, which in turn provokes a slight elevation in potential redox. As for the pressure measured in the bottles, in general, a decrease in the pressure of submerged bottles was observed. The immersion process and the subsequent emersion, provokes a fall in the pressure in the bottles, becoming, in some cases, negative.
The differences observed between the highest potential redox and the lowest internal pressure can be reasons for differentiated important modifications of the organoleptic components between submerged and terrestrial samples. (See figures 7 & 8).
These results confirm that actually, there are strong reasons for thinking that underwater treasuring exercises an influence on important chemical parameters within the wine. The oxygen and potential redox are without a doubt reasons for which the wines are more polymerized, resulting in a smoother level of tannins and a deeper violet colour. An observation based upon own experience shows that the treasured wines do not need ventilation before being consumed, already being sufficiently expressive and open to fully enjoy.
Current project status and near future:
LSEB has spent 4 whole years carrying out research studies to show how underwater treasuring influences the organoleptical characteristics and physical-chemical parameters of wines. For this, more than 30 different wines, from different regions of origin and varieties of grape, have been submitted to the effects of the depths of the open sea, carrying out constant emersions of samples to see how the time of year and the period of storage influences the wine’s characteristics.
At this time, LSEB PLENTZIA has 10 Ageing and Control Models (Spanish:MEC) (see figure 9) under patent, using red wine aged in the Cantabric sea. There are two types of wine that are commercialized under the brand Crusoe Treasure (T. White and Red) with two very different styles. The first is a Tempranillo with 1 year of ageing in oak and 1 year of submerged treasuring, creating the perfect ensemble between fresh fruit aromas and oak spices, with a very soft level of tannins and with a certain surprisingly complex and very persistent retronasal. The second is a wine from the Wine of the Country variety (Spanish:Tinta del Pais), very robust and young in its fruitful expression, showing red fruits and sweet vanilla aromas from new barrels, structurally powerful and with very fresh sensations.
All the treasured products in LSEB Plentzia, belong to a limited series and are numbered. The Crusoe Treasure “Classic” is a series of less than 4,000 bottles, while the Crusoe Treasure “Passion” is a series of just under 6,000 bottles. Both with a treasuring period of around one year, surviving storms, swaying with the waves in the dark waters of the sea, surrounded by life, such as the abundant Caridean squid (Palaemon). In fact the MEC have been designed to act as an artificial reef, converted into an own habitat for different species of fish which are born, bred and grown in the reef. This is true in the case of the shoals of bream, pout and new species which continually colonize the area, identifying more than 150 species in all. The artificial reef has managed to attract a lot of life, rich in diversity, to the place where the beverages are kept. All these factors combine to ensure that the wine takes on its own unique and original organoleptic sensations.
The company that has developed this project gives a fraction of it benefits (10%) to study the sea. The cellar has also become a laboratory to monitor species and climate change impacts. At the same time, different studies about marine biology are developing and attracting interest from different universities and institutions. During 2010, 2011 and 2012, thanks to this company, it was possible to control and monitor colonising species and environmental aspects by an expert team of biologists. In 2013 the Department of Marine Sciences and Applied Biology (University of Alicante) signed an agreement to do an exhaustive study about marine biology developed in the cellar.
Antonio Tomás Palacios
Doctor in Microbiology from the School of Agricultural Engineering (Polytechnic University of Madrid) and a degree in Biology from the University of Salamanca, Palacios has professional recognition as a winemaker and he currently works as an associate teacher at the University of the Rioja. He combines this task with the managing of ‘Laboratorios Excell Ibérica’. He also works as a winemaker at Bodegas Edra Ayerbe (Aragon) and at the ‘Laboratorio Submarino de Envejecimiento de Bebidas’ in Plentzia.