Wine That's Aged Underwater Is the Buried Treasure of the Sea

I spent a day with a handful of French men in diving suits who were tasked with stashing some of the region's finest wine deep in the Mediterranean Sea.

Dec 28 2015, 9:00pm

It's already hot when I reach the small port of the Saint-Mandrier peninsula in the department of Var at 9 AM. With no sign of wind and waves barely 12 inches high, it is the perfect weather for tossing the region's wine into the sea. Or at least it is according to Jérôme Vincent, the director of the Ecole Nationale des Scaphandriers (National School of Divers), who is waiting for me in front of his inflatable boat, ready to embark on the open ocean.

For someone like me who hails from the Southeast of France, Bandol is like holy water. I wouldn't say it fuels my life, but during the summer when the clock strikes noon and the crickets are singing, it's a local tradition to open up a bottle of fresh rosé. Hiding a cargo of the stuff in the Mediterranean Sea with a team of divers, on the other hand, is a first for me in oenology.

The diving apprentices wait on deck for operations to begin. Photos by the author.

This initiative to study the aging process of regional wines was co-launched by the Association of Bandol Wines and the Oenothèque of Bandol Wines, in collaboration with the National School of Divers (ENS). "Divers are the only ones with the skills to carry out underwater work," explains Vincent. In this particular case, a serious construction project is at hand: digging deep into the Mediterranean by building an aquatic cave, dropping the bottles in and covering them layer by layer with sediment.

Strapped with 88 pounds of equipment, the divers listen to final instructions before going 130 feet deep.

To take on such underwater efforts, your average diver doesn't fit the bill. Before the digging can begin, the divers have to find a quiet spot, "away from the pirates." Apparently, around here, word travels fast, and even more so when what's at stake is a veritable treasure trove of booze.

Bandol Scaphandre 9 Underwater, the divers load the booze into cases that will be covered with sand. Photo by Jean de Saint Victor de Saint Blancard.

Fifteen different winemakers are participating in the operation, which includes the 2011 vintage red and the 2014 batch of white and rosé, totaling 240 bottles. For 18 months, half the hooch will remain 131 feet deep in 59- to 68-degree Fahrenheit water, while the other half—comprised of 120 identical bottles—will age the traditional way inside a cave.

A myriad of factors influence the aging of wine: here, the goal is to compare the effects of sea currents and temperature. Underwater, wine benefits from optimal conditions that are believed to improve its quality: namely, very faint variations of pressure and temperature in complete darkness and very little vibrations. "Bandol wine is known for holding up well during sea crossings and is even enhanced by the gentle rocking of the waves," explains Guillaume Tari, president of AOC Bandol. In the microclimate of Bandol, valleys of vineyards go down the coast. The sea regulates the maturity of mourvèdre, the region's staple grape variety. "Paradoxically on the Mediterranean, the tidal coefficient is very low, but mourvèdre is very sensitive to lunar cycles," he adds.

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The bottles were sealed with wax so that the cork isn't propelled inside the bottle by underwater pressure. Photo: Oenothèque des Vins de Bandol.

When the small inflatable boat brings us to the scene of the operation (at a secret location), a dozen student divers line up while waiting for us—a small group of men, aged 19 to 48. It is their final mission before the end of their training, which takes two months to complete. Some of them (including a man named André, the dean of the class) are absent today, opting to cram for their final exam instead.

"It may not seem like it, but diving involves lots of theory and calculation," remarks Brice, a tall 23-year-old with long, brown hair. He's a welder from Montpellier, and now wants to know how to weld underwater: "It's a trip; you gotta love welding."

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This Galeazzi lance, a powerful water-jet lance, allowed the divers to dig the underwater trench where the bottles will be buried.

He hands me a Galeazzi lance (a powerful water jet lance of rather questionable shape), which allows them to dig the underwater trench where the bottles will be buried. He doesn't like wine, but thinks it's cool to go 130 feet deep and hide a little regional treasure. His pal Jordan is more pragmatic: "I hope they invite us to the tasting when they take all of this out of the water." He is 25 and has worked as a truck driver since he was 18. Now he wants to be a diver and work in the nuclear field. By all accounts, all of them hope that aquatic vinification will work: "If it works and the technique is widely adopted, it'll get us a good amount of jobs around here."

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Jojo, the diving instructor, controls the large crane that sends down the 120 bottles at a depth of 130 feet.

"Nobody touch anything, we're sending it down!" With controls in hand, Jojo, the diving instructor, starts the crane and sends down the 120 bottles. They've been sealed with wax so that the cork isn't propelled into the bottle as the pressure rises. The divers strap on nearly 90 pounds of equipment—belt, yellow helmet, weighted shoes, and spare tank—and begin their descent in pairs.

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Bandol Scaphandre 8 Photo by Jean de Saint Victor de Saint Blancard.

On deck, Pascal Périer, director of the Oenothèque of Bandol Wines, watches as the wine hive disappears underwater. If the experiment is successful and the wine that resurfaces turns out better than the ones aged in a cave, the winemaker will score great press around the potential to age rosé wines. "People don't always think about aging them. I've tasted Bandol rosés that were aged more than 20 years and were absolutely staggering."

Before resurfacing after two hours of work, the completely euphoric men in spacesuits immortalize the end of the operation by posing for a photo in front of the cases with bottles from the Domaine de la Bégude in hand. They will take them out in a year and a half. Then they will have the opportunity—on dry land this time—to experience once more the intoxicating taste of a "made in Bandol" wine.

This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in August, 2015.