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A New Extreme for Underwater Wine Aging

The discovery of the ocean as an ideal cellar has yielded a number of new underwater-aged wines—but many of them are no different from their land-aged brethren. Zachary Sussman on one very notable exception: Julie Benau's Libéro, a picpoul aged for six months in barrels submerged in an oyster bed.

Every few months, a story will surface about how a team of divers exploring some shipwreck off the coast of Sweden or Poland—or some other remote location—just discovered a rare treasure trove of hundred-year-old wine. The most recent incident focused upon a stash of Champagne recovered from the remains of a trade schooner that sank over 170 years ago in the Baltic Sea. Of the 79 bottles that were recovered, 11 of them recently fetched $156,000 at a Finnish auction.

Aside from their status as historical relics, what makes bottles like this so compelling is the fact that the environment in which they’ve existed—cold, dark, pressurized and completely oxygenless—can preserve a wine far beyond its average lifespan on land.

The discovery of the ocean as an ideal temperature-controlled cellar has yielded a rash of new underwater-aged wines. Whether designed as trials or part of their commercial production, examples exist from producers as wide-ranging as Santorini’s Gaia winery, Raul Perez in Rias Baixas, the famed Champagne house Veuve Clicquot and the Bisson estate in Liguria, among many others, including California’s Mira Winery, which curiously opts to age one of its cabernets all the away across the country in Charleston Harbor.

As undeniably cool as the process might seem, I’ve often questioned the extent to which it imparts a new or different character to the wine. In many cases, it feels more like a marketing gimmick than an essential component of a wine’s identity. Just compare Mira’s “land-aged” 2009 Cabernet, priced at $48 per bottle, to the ocean-aged version at $500 and decide for yourself whether the aquatic experience warrants the extra cash.

“The difference between the typical picpoul and the Libéro is shocking.”

But I was entirely unprepared for Languedoc winemaker Julie Benau’s “Libéro” cuvée. Hailing from the tiny appellation of Picpoul-de-Pinet in southern France—and made from picpoul, the local white grape—the bottle takes underwater aging to a new extreme. Rather than submerge the wine after it’s already been bottled, Benau does so while it’s still in barrel—four barrels, to be precise, which enjoy a six-month soak eight-meters deep in an oyster bed located in the basin of the Étang de Thau.

Although she’s not the first to attempt this technique—Bordeaux producer Château Larrivet Haut-Brion partnered with the well-known cooperage firm Radoux to sink their 2009 red in a specially-designed 56-liter barrel in Arcachon Bay—she is certainly doing it in the most scrappy, independent way, and the results are unexpected, to say the least.

Unlike many wines that have taken in the plunge in bottle—such as Bisson’s Abissi Prosecco, for example, which admittedly doesn’t taste all that different from its land-locked peers—the ocean leaves an indelible imprint upon the Libéro, which was first produced in 2012. According to Benau, when submerged in bottle, “the wine is already finished and stabilized, so there isn’t any further evolution.” When this happens in barrel, on the other hand, “it develops in a completely different environment,” which drastically impacts the final product.

Part of this involves the specific way the lees—the dead yeast cells that remain as a byproduct of fermentation—interact within the barrels, which are left free to rock with the currents. In this way, the water’s natural movement constantly stirs the lees: think of it as a perpetual “battonage.” Since no exchange between wine and seawater takes place—Benau secures metal brackets to the barrel’s plug to prevent it from bursting, and the outward pressure of the gas released during fermentation functions as a natural buffer—I can only assume that this accounts for the Libéro’s unusual savoriness and textural depth, which would surprise anyone familiar with picpoul’s more classic style.

“The difference between the typical picpoul and the Libéro is shocking,” Benau mentions. This comes across almost like an understatement, since the wine tastes so startlingly original: somewhere between a lees-aged Muscadet and a denser Rhône white, but with a bit of seaweed and petrol (in a good way) mixed in. “As a result of this intensive aging, the wine is richer and the aromas more complex.”

Hardly praised for its complexity, picpoul generally aspires toward the kind of simple, crisp Mediterranean white reserved for washing down the area’s (arguably more) famous oysters. Too often, though, the wines reveal the mass-produced aesthetic of the co-op model, whose legacy still lingers in the region. In the context of this cultural situation, Benau’s experimentation takes on a new meaning.

“Until I met Julie Benau, I had absolutely no interest in picpoul,” confesses Lee Campbell, beverage director of the Andrew Tarlow restaurants in Brooklyn, who sells the Libéro by the bottle at Williamsburg’s Reynard alongside glass pours of Benau’s basic version of the grape. “I just thought of it as one of those cheap co-op wines.”

Now a convert—at least, where Benau’s wines are concerned—Campbell views the Libéro as anything but a publicity stunt.

“To me, it’s interesting when the winemaking follows an impulse that’s pragmatic,” she says. “I don’t get why a Champagne producer would bring their wine to the coast; that doesn’t make sense in the grand scheme of things. But this is Julie’s backyard, so it’s natural for her to adapt and experiment this way.”

It’s difficult to describe, but despite the unusual process behind its creation, there’s something about the wine—its salinity, its wild mineral depth—that feels true to a sense of place. As Campbell puts it, “To me, it’s really just an extension of her terroir.”

Or “merroir,” as the case may be. Far from a novelty, Libéro is part of Benau’s broader effort to reclaim her region’s identity and expand the possibilities of what a wine from there can mean—even if her definition of “there” includes an oyster bed in the sea.