Perched on rocks on the Saint Malo bay in western France, a bunch of sea-freak winemakers and winetasters sniffed and spat their way through half a dozen bottles hauled out of the bottom of the sea. The Loire valley wines -- all Anjou Village de Brissac-Quince -- had spent a year submerged 10 metres (30 feet) under water off the Saint-Malo port of Solidor.
As per custom, the six wine-buffs swirled, sniffed and savoured their way through a blind tasting of three whites and three reds. Two of the reds and two of the whites were brought up from the depths this month and compared with bottles of the same wine stored on dry land. The difference, the tasters said, was clear.
"The underwater whites," said Christophe Daviaud, owner of Brissac-Quince, "have more obvious wood aromas, more of the toasted barrel." In total, 600 bottles were submerged a year ago in the bay known for its strong tides, placed in slatted wooden crates that allow for the passage of undersea currents.
"The submerged reds have evolved more slowly," than the non-submerged reds, Daviaud added. "They could well become vin de garde (fine wines that can last up to 40 years in the bottle)." Yannick Heude, local wine shop owner and master of ceremonies of the underwater experiment, agreed and said he could detect a certain extra freshness in the submerged whites.
At the weekend tasting, Heude watched with anxiety as a crab boat named "Shangaie" winched up two enormous open-weave wooden cases, badly sea-weathered and covered in abalone, seaweed and limpets -- a highly delicate operation carried out by professional abalone fishermen in diving suits.
The 600 sea-buried bottles, 300 red and 300 white minus the four used for the tasting were immediately dispatched to the nearby island of Cezembre, where they were to be auctioned later the same day for the benefit of a French charity to feed the homeless, the Restaurant du Coeur, and the National Sea Rescue Society (SNSM).
Simultaneously, and for the fourth consecutive year, 600 other bottles - 300 of white Burgundy and 300 of Rhone Valley Crozes-Hermitage red, the necks tightly sealed with hard wax -- were lowered into the water for a one-year sea massage. The project was the brainchild of Heude and three friends: Emmanuel George, a conch grower and wholesale fish merchant from nearby, Yann Le Nabour, a professional fisherman, and Rene Suzanne, a former restaurateur and the one who came up with the idea in the first place.
In 2002, the three friends, after deciding during a wine tasting that what united them was "wine and passion for the sea," decided to plunge bottles into the Saint Malo bay, known for some of the biggest tides in Europe. "The aging effect is different than on land," Heude told AFP. "We knew the sea was a good wine cellar because in terms of the level of humidity, you couldn't find better. "There's no ultraviolet sunlight and the average temperature is stable at between 9 and 12 degrees below 10 metres," Heude said.
"What we didn't know was the effect of the tides and the currents of eight knots (15 kilometres, nine miles per hour) that massage the bottles twice a day," he said. "They amplify the wine's evolution, which seems younger when it comes out of the sea, but with smoother and rounder flavours and smells," he added. "We were convinced the first time we did this, and now each year we will do it again."