The Briny Depths Give Wine An Edge, But How?

Though Hackaday scribes have been known to imbibe a few glasses in their time, it’s fair to say that we are not a wine critic site. When a news piece floated by about a company getting into trouble for illegally submerging crates of wine though, our ears pricked up. Why are vintners dumping their products in the sea?

Making wine, or indeed any alcoholic beverage, starts with taking a base liquor, be it grape juice, apple juice, barley malt solution, or whatever, and fermenting it with a yeast culture to produce alcohol. The result is a drink that’s intoxicating but rough, and the magic that turns it into a connoisseur’s tipple happens subsequently as it matures. The environment in which the maturation happens has a huge influence on this, which is one of many reasons why wine from the cellar of a medieval chateau tastes better than that from an industrial unit in southern England. The Californian company was attempting to speed up this process by leaving the bottles beneath the waves.

Having something of an interest in the finer chemical points of the maturation process we were fascinated by the idea that an undersea maturation can lead to a better wine, and while the explanations we found online provided an answer involving higher oxygen content we have to admit to being unsatisfied. The low light and constant temperature we can understand, but the idea that the water pressure might also have a bearing on the final result we’re less satisfied with. The whole point of a wine bottle is that it has an impermeable seal which can take significant pressure differences — see a champagne bottle for an example — and which lets nothing in so the wine can’t spoil. The curiosity of an engineer is not limited only to electronics or machines, so we have to ask whether an underwater maturation system could be replicated in a hackerspace without the need for a diving tender. Can we turn supermarket plonk into something that would fool a somellier? We’re guessing that finding out could result in inebriation.

We’ve visited wine storage here in the past.

Looking for more wine? Check out our 2016 Hackaday Prize best product winner, vinduino from [Renier van der Lee].

Header: Bottles, Shipwreck Museum by Oast House Archive, CC BY-SA 2.0.

61 thoughts on “The Briny Depths Give Wine An Edge, But How?

  1. There’s probably nothing particularly good about aging at the bottom of the sea, I’m betting it’s mainly a gimmick to convince people with more money than sense to hand a logically indefensible sum of that money over. See also: sending wine to space; audiophile nonsense.

    1. I feel that main reason to do it is the wine bottle aesthetics from “aging” in the sea make the bottles more novel (I would consider buying one and I’m not a big wine fan).

    2. >the idea that the water pressure might also have a bearing on the final result we’re less satisfied with. The whole point of a wine bottle is that it has an impermeable seal which can take significant pressure differences

      The “impermeable” seal of cork contains OXYGEN. Normally, at least SOME of this oxygen diffuses into the bottle. When a bottle is sea aged the oxygen is drawn out of the cork into the seawater. This alone brightens the wine and allows a number of more delicate notes to endure aging where they normally fade away.

      Is it a night and day difference? not really. But to a trained tongue which can taste the difference in a wines vintage due to the weather conditions of the harvest year, Everything little thing makes a BIG DIFFERENCE.

      1. I call shenanigans on this. Even if the cork contains oxygen (huh? even that doesn’t make much sense) if it were stored in air, the oxygen would just diffuse out of the cork (again, what?) into the air. And if the bottle were in water, half the oxygen would go in to the wine and half out, right?
        I’ve had some old wine from the 80’s and when you pour it you can practically watch it oxidize and change colors in front of you as you drink the glass. So I’m guessing that a properly corked bottle allows approximately zero air/oxygen/gas of any type in or out. This is further argued by champagne that is carbonated to a high pressure, and remains so (with a natural cork!) indefinitely. Old champagne still bubbly, you know. If gas under pressure doesn’t diffuse through the cork, gas at atmospheric pressure wouldn’t either.

        1. It doesnt make sense that cork has oxygen in it? how do you think cork floats? Have you ever looked at cork under a microscope? Millions of HOLLOW cells FILLED WITH AIR.

          Have you ever been under water and exhaled? does the air just hover around you then diffuse into the water? NOPE it RISES and FLOATS AWAY! Same thing with the cork, The trapped oxygen goes out, up, and away, and the cork swells with water.

          On dry land, the only force hydrating the cork and giving the air a path for escape is the water content of the wine. So whatever air is in the cork goes into the wine. This is not an issue of the cork allowing atmospheric air into the bottle. Its a matter of the air in the cork escaping either out of the cork into the sea or out of the cork into the wine.

          Champagne stays bubbly BECAUSE after it sucks a portion of the oxygen out of the wine tainting its flavor ever so slightly the carbonation STILL BUILDING in the secondary fermentation pressurizes the bottle and CO2 displaces the absorbed wine as it diffuses into the neck of the cork. This is why the cork of champagne grows like popcorn when its opened.

          Google even a little bit next time and save people the trouble of giving you basic information to counter you. There really was no need for the attitude. Go play on 4chan or reddit if you want to be a shit.

        2. About 45% of natural cork stoppers have cracks or crevices which allow water and gasses to seep through. That’s why some bottles go bad while others age well.

          Cork is made out of a material called “suberin”, which is a hydrophobic material – it doesn’t soak up water. The cell walls are surrounded by this and other natural waxes, which makes cork like a closed cell memory foam – it slowly returns back to its shape after getting compressed. The surface layers pick up water through diffusion into the gas pockets, but generally there is little to no gas exchange across the material – except through the cracks and flaws.

          A good cork should have negligible gas exchange into the wine – a miniscule amount of oxygen will remain but this is nothing compared to the amount of air that gets mixed in the wine when it is poured into the bottle in the first place.

        3. “if it were stored in air, the oxygen would just diffuse out of the cork (again, what?) into the air”

          And air contains….? Oxygen. So it would just be at equilibrium with the oxygen in the air.

        1. You’ve obviously never met one. You can give them an unlabeled glass of wine and they’ll look at it, smell it, taste it and then tell you from what grapes it is, where it is from and the (approximate) age. I happen to know a few sommeliers.

          1. I am usually able to tell if it was last season’s harvest, but, yes, the certification requirements and testing for the initial level of qualification as a sommelier, let alone a master sommelier are rigorous to say the least.

          2. Occasionally they’ve been made fools of.

            White is red when blindfolded etc. It’s not a history free from charlatans.

            Also famously: ‘Ah, back to France’….later that day…’Give me back my ballots! I accidently rated California wine highly.’ They left the red wine day out of that movie (who’s name escapes me). It was ugly, best frogish sommeliers throwing tantrums.

          3. I would expect them to tell the grape and approximate vintage – especially if there has been a lot of variation recently – but “every little small difference matters” down to milligram levels of oxygen in the cork is comparable to gold plated audio cable level of bunk.

          4. Actually, that should be micrograms. Point being, there will be a thousand times more air/oxygen left in the empty space in the neck of the bottle, than what would remain in the cork to be diffused into the wine.

          5. Dude

            It’s not unheard of for winemakers to keep fill their bottles with nitrogen before filling them with wine from a container also topped off with CO2 or nitrogen.

      2. Couldn’t the effect of the seawater drawing out oxygen be also achieved with some of that ‘oxygen absorber’ stuff they put in small bags inside food packaging to keep the food fresh?

        Put a small thing of the stuff against the cork then seal the lot in wax.

        Keep the bottle in a wine fridge and wait.

        Although, that won’t provide the drawcard (and profit) of “wine from Davey Jones’ locker!”….

        1. Or they just bottle it under an inert atmosphere.

          Beer brewers routinely keep beer in an anoxic environment from fermenter to bottle / can. I’m sure many vintners do as well.
          The whole “aged under water’ is just a gimmick. Pressurized transfer and a cheap temp controller accomplish the same thing. You could even control the amount of oxidation by varying the gas blend.

  2. “The problem — and this is a significant one — was that the company’s owners never received the proper permits from the California Coastal Commission or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which turned that “perfect environment” into an illegal one.

    On top of that, the company sold the wine without a business license, without an ABC alcohol sales permit, and it was collecting taxes from each purchase without paying the required taxes to the state.”

    “According to Santa Barbara County District Attorney John T. Savrnoch, the wines would be considered “adulterated and not fit for human consumption,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). ”

    I mean that’s clearly bullshit, why would the wines be unfit for consumption? They ran the business illegally with no permits, that’s the problem.

    1. Whether the wine is toxic or palatable or whatever to an individual is a different thing than from the point of view of the regulators. Either it was produced according to code and thus is fit for consumption or.. it wasn’t.
      From you quotes, these people were essentially moonshiners. No license, no permit from the Alcohol Board of California (ABC), and doing dodgy things with taxes are all hugely punishable infractions. Based on that string of bad decision making, I would personally be highly suspicious of any claims made by them anyway, and you couldn’t get me to drink their likely gutrot garbage ocean wine on a dare.
      There is plenty of good wine coming from good honest winemakers in CA that don’t resort to some gimmick nonsense to peddle their booze.

      1. “produced according to code and thus is fit for consumption”: non sequitur. I doubt very much that the code excludes all possible ways for wine to be unfit for human consumption, even if not considering that ethanol is poisonous.

      2. Cali wines can be quite qood, agreed. As a wine consumer that never bought a bottle more expensive than 120 dollars and having never kept a bottle for more than a few months, i never experienced any problems with natural or artificial corks. Wines are for drinking, not collecting dust on a shelf.

    2. I’d say they weren’t tested (either independently or by a licensing authority) for the alcohol content of the beverage. I know in the EU it cannot be sold (legally) unless its tested by (or on behalf of) the state the alcohol is being sold in. And going on that, if its not tested its assumed to be toxic, which is probably the safest bet, as incident like this – happen often enough.

      I know in Ireland there was a tradition of throwing the first glass of Poitin (moonshine) to the fairies, probably because alcohol is less dense than water it would reduce the chances of it being toxic, but its not exactly a scientific method of showing the ABV.

      1. “Fusel oil”, the first stuff that gets distilled out of the grain or corn mash because it’s of a different weight than Ethanol. It may contain alcohols that are toxic, like Methanol. It metabolizes to formaldehyde, then formic acid, both toxic. Formic acid is especially damaging to the human optic nerve. At little as 10 ml can cause blindness. 15 ml is potentially lethal though the LD50 dose is around 100 ml or 3.4 ounces.

        1. Yeah, I made moonshine once. Y’gotta dump the heads and tails of your distillation.

          It tasted awful, but it was fun to make. My dad was a chemistry professor and supervised a little to make sure I didn’t blow myself up.

          1. My Dad was also a chem prof.

            Me at 12: Dad, can I have a little nitric acid. Me and my friends are doing an experiment?, bs, bs, bs.

            A long time later (likely about a week).

            Me: Dad, can I have a little sulfuric acid…
            Dad: Nitroglycerin is very dangerous, don’t be stupid son…You can get nitrocellulose/smokeless powder in the reloading section of the gun store…Don’t ask me to sign for it. If you mom ever finds out, I know nothing. Don’t be stupid.

            Never got hurt or arrested. Explosive pyromania is hereditary and perfectly normal for future engineers.

        2. Fusel oils come out in the tails. Methanol and other lighter stuff like acetone comes out in the heads. An old distiller’s trick is to throw some soda lime in the mash, because it turns the fusel oils into soap which won’t evaporate that easily.

    1. I know somebody who bought (for way too much money) a bottle of whisky recovered from the SS Politician (grounded and sunk off Scotland in 1941). It tasted awful, contaminated with saltwater (not that I got a taste…).

      1. And this brings my story, similarly NOT being wine but scotch.

        Grandmother have this precious and expensive unopened bottle of scotch. For “millennia” … almost.

        I was far too young to drink and now to remember the name.
        But I recall when adult family members convinced grandmother to finally open the bottle.

        The surprise and shock was because the vintage scotch tasted … tasted like Naphthalene!!!

        Grandmother kept the bottle in the same preciously carved timber cabinet where woolens & whatever than grandmother thought to protect with abundant and periodic naphthalene balls.

        1. corks DON’T SEAL all that well after all.
        2. if it is sooo incredibly good, drink it NOW.


  3. There is a winery in Croatia that has been doing this for awhile. I went on a dive to see where they age the wine and overall was a fun experience. We did a tasting of the same vintage with one bottle being aged in their cellars and the other aged under the sea. There was a noticible difference, I am sure it is due to the wide variety of variables. Different temps, movement of the bottles from the water currents, etc. It was more of a novelty than anything and the bottles covered in barnacles and other sea life were neat to look at.

    1. I was there this summer. Went for the full “package” they offer, same wine year/batch but one aged in cellar, one aged in bottle in the sea and one aged in bottle that is stuffed in a roman era style ceramic bottle.
      The difference between the cellar and bottle aged wine was noticable but the amphora aged one was very different, coloring was also a bit different. Why? Who knows, no datalogger, no proof.
      Overall, interesting trip/experience to do.

  4. Homebrewers (myself included) have messed with spunding, or, fermenting under elevated pressure. It kinda makes sense- yeast produce CO2 so maybe if you inhibit the process a little you may get some different results. Zero commercial brewers do it though; it is kinda a PITA. Anyway I haven’t noticed much if any difference in the beers but will say it is a pretty convenient method for some other non-obvious reasons. Don’t need to carbonate artificially (saves $$$), pressurized vessel keeps air/oxygen from coming in (oxidation DEFINITELY matters), makes pressure-transfer easier to kegs, don’t need to worry about temperature fluctuations sucking sanitizer up the blow-off hose *into* the fermenter (ick/contamination possibility).
    Brulosophy compared spunding vs no spunding and got either no difference or barely a difference in two different experiments.
    So what I’m saying is, if in essentially lab conditions with controlled variables, pressure ferment doesn’t matter, then storing wine underwater would not do jack-all from a pressure standpoint, especially because as article pointed out, the storage vessel itself is rigid.

    1. I’ve done this with Elderflower “Cordial” and under pressure its definitely nicer than compared to having a bubbler there all the time. It’s probably because the pressure restricts the CO2 production once its fully saturated so the liquid doesn’t sour.

  5. That distiller who is aging bourbon in barrels rocking around on a ship at least has a plausible idea how it will work. The resulting quality depends on many different things, of course.

    1. Yes, Jefferson’s Ocean is bottled and put to sea for I think three months, they claim the rocking of the boat gives it more flavor, which it may. I went to the distillery and tried it and it tastes like bourbon but I am far from a connoisseur. Maybe its the constant movement that makes the wine wine taste “better”.

      1. not the same with whiskey and wine.
        Wine sits on the ocean floor in bottles and crates, nice and still

        When you make a whiskey,
        Think of your raw alcohol as water,
        Think of the charred barrel as a tea bag.
        All that sexy brown caramel and the flavors that accompany are drawn from the wood.
        Boat Aging is the act of spending MONTHS bobbing a tea bag to steep a darker brew faster.

    2. Thank dog they all lie.

      Can you imagine how nasty actual 25 year old McCallum or 25 (much less 300) year old Cognac would be if it wasn’t just a pack of lies.
      It would taste like chewing on a stick.

      For those that don’t know, every 20 years or so someone does C-14 dating on some super overpriced booze. The age is _always_ a lie. The distillers threaten to have the product of the testing nation tested e.g. the frogs say: ‘Good work catching us, again. Lets try the same in Kentucky/Scotland etc.’ The subject is then dropped.

  6. Kind of reminds me of how Madeira is made. But alcohol connoisseurship is probably mostly about perception. An adequate wine is probably no worse than a very expensive one, but the cheap ones do actually suck.
    Which makes it odd to use a secret, illegal technique to improve the wine if it doesn’t actually do anything except get the company shut down if they’re caught. Alcohol regs are really strange.

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