Wine and spirit water-aging techniques seem to be having a moment. But how do they work?
World Best Bar
Apr 25, 2022
10 January 2019
The water-aged wine and spirits category seems to be on the rise, with a growing number of producers using the sea as a key part of the elaboration process.
Aging spirits near the sea takes advantage of the humid seaside air and temperature fluctuations so as to maximize their impact on the barrels holding the spirits. Scotland’s islands, namely Islay, are known for embracing the salty sea air’s impact to enhance Scotch whisky. The aging caves on the coasts of France’s Ile de Ré are also known to add maritime complexity to French cognac.
How does it work? Since barrels are made of wood, by storing them near the water, they can breathe the sea air in and out every day, swelling and contracting in the process. This results in increased contact between wood and spirit, speeding up the barrel-aging time and subtly changing the contribution of the oak to the spirit over time. For longer-aged spirits, the sea air can add more depth and character to the spirit with the contribution of briny and salty notes.
How about on the water? On top of the temperature, humidity and pressure fluctuations brought by a seaside setting, storing spirits on floating vessels as they mature takes advantage of the water’s motion: by rocking up and down, and back and forth, the constant sloshing of the liquid inside the barrel increases the contact between them even more. This is called “dynamic aging”, and the precursor of this method is Linie Aquavit, which started sailing its namesake liquor from Norway to the East Indies and back across the equator line (linie) inside sherry oak casks back in the 1800s, and continues to do so today.
Lastly, a growing number of producers have found underwater ageing emphasises certain characteristics in wine, some of them inspired by shipwreck wines found decades later at the bottom of the sea. Several trials have found differences between underwater wine and wine aged on land, but opinions still vary. While blind tastings held with experts have suggested underwater ageing has an effect on a wine’s character, which can be explained by a wide set of reasons ranging from natural temperature regulation and protection from light rays to the impact of pressure changes and the movement of the sea itself, the terms used to describe the wines could be employed by winemakers around the world in similar fashion depending on decisions taken in the cellar.
So what do you think? Is it all just clever marketing and storytelling or is there really something there?