Some readers of the Geo-Joint may be baffled by the notion of wine storage. Get the corkscrew! Twist the cap! Unseal the spigot! Let’s have a glass of wine right now! However, for those who can exercise a degree of delayed gratification, a bottle of good wine presents a problem. It’s not good to stand it up on a shelf and let the cork dry out, and letting it get too warm can accelerate chemical changes. Ideally, a stable, dark, evenly cooled environment with angled repose is the desired situation, and wines so stored can keep for years, even decades. Usually these conditions are carefully arranged and managed by those who hope to have a taste of exquisitely aged grape juice.
Sometimes, however, the perfect conditions are achieved by a most unfortunate and sometimes violent turn of events. Wine has long been traded and shipped from the lands of vinyards to faraway places, and for as long there have been ships, there have been shipwrecks. If the ship goes down slowly and settles gently, and currents through its resting place are not strong, even delicate items like wine bottles can survive. Temperatures on the sea bottom are very stable and at sufficient depth there is pitch blackness. If the cork can survive, this can be a prime situation for aging. In 2010, underwater archaeologists found 168 bottles of French champagne, as well as some beer, that had gone down in 150 feet of water on a ship near Aaland, a Finnish archipelago between Finland and Sweden that lies at the south end of the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. The two-masted schooner had probably sunk sometime between 1825 and 1830. When they brought the first bottles up, one of the corks popped on its own and a crewman had a swig – it was good! Further tastings have revealed that many bottles are in good shape and though much of the fizz has disappeared, the contents still have a complex and tasty quality. The wine was intensely sweet, as that was the prefered style for champagne at that time. Sales of some bottles could fetch more than $130,000.
Older yet are some bottles of wine from the Mosel Valley of Germany, sunk off Holland in 1735. Found in 1982, they were auctioned off a few years ago as historical relics, but not well-preserved wine.
Experiments have been conducted by curious vintners intent on discovering if ocean storage of wine might be preferable. Some French winemakers stored a Bordeaux in a barrel inside a concrete chamber sitting at lowest low tide. It wasn’t on the deep bottom, but for six months it had the factors of salt water and movement to affect it, and compared to an identical cask stored on land, it developed into a tastier wine. Perhaps from osmosis, the wine had a slight loss of alcohol, and a rise in sodium, bringing out more flavor. The ocean trick doesn’t always work, though, and wine found on shipwrecks doesn’t always stand the test of time. A Civil War-era sidewheel steamship bound from Bermuda to the Confederacy went down with a load of wine that was recovered recently. The now-gray wine was reported to to taste of “a mixture of crab water, gasoline, salt water and vinegar, with hints of citrus and alcohol.” It’s probably still best to get your wine from dry land.