Underwater winemakers take the plunge in Spain

With the aid of a small crane, Borja Saracho lowers five cages loaded with 2,500 bottles of white wine from a fishing boat into the Cantabrian Sea.

Underwater winemakers take the plunge in Spain

He then plunges into the sea wearing a wetsuit to check sensors that monitor temperature and water pressure around the precious load.

“We are a winery,” says the 44-year-old founder of Crusoe Treasure in the picturesque bay of Plentzia near Bilbao in Spain’s northern Basque region.

Until several years ago this diving enthusiast did not even drink wine.

Now he sells wines that have been aged underwater — a growing niche market — in Spain as well as in Belgium, China, Switzerland, Germany and Japan.

“I have always been interested in sunken ships and hidden treasures,” said Saracho, whose company has been in the market since 2013 and is the largest underwater winery in Spain.

Crusoe Treasure expects to sell 30,000 bottles of red and white wine this year, up from just 7,000 in 2017. The prices of its wines start at 58 euros ($67.50) a bottle.

It is one of about a dozen firms that age wines underwater in Spain. Other firms which age wine underwater exist in Italy, Croatia, France and Chile.

The underwater conditions — total darkness and constant temperature — are thought to accelerate the ageing process, adding complexity to the wine.

But it comes at a price — the technique costs 25-70 percent more for the winemaker than ageing wine on land because of the logistics required.

Entrepreneurs are investing in this sector “thinking it is not a fad, but a technique that in the medium term can be very useful” and “add qualities to a wine that make it more attractive to the public,” said Rafael del Rey, the director of the Spanish Wine Market Observatory, an independent foundation.


Fresh, floral wines 

Ageing wine under the sea, with its tides, currents and waves, can be “very rough” so it is best to work with “very robust wines”, said Crusoe Treasure’s chief oenologist, Antonio Palacios.

The company works with wineries from different parts of Spain, and since it is not restricted by the system of geographical indications, or designation of origin protection linked to where a wine is produced, it can mix different strains of grapes from more than one region.

Most of the wines are stored first in barrels of the firm’s partner wineries before they are transferred to bottles, which are closed with a special stopper and seal.

The bottles then go 20 metres (65 feet) under the sea, where they rest for six to 12 months in metal cages.
Over in the northeastern region of Catalonia, the Hotel Cala Joncols has since 2009 aged wines underwater.

It keeps them only six months underwater because “any longer and wine can lose its edge”, said its sommelier Josep Lluis Vilarasau.

The hotel uses young and recently bottled wines which they store 17 metres underwater.

One of its wines sells for 30 euros a bottle for the traditional earth produced version and 40 euros if it was underwater.

They even sell a white wine which they produce from beginning to end using a grape grown on a parcel of land beside the hotel.

The philosophy is to dispense with woody aromas and preserve “those primary aromas which are of fruit, flowers and minerals,” said Vilarasau.

The result is a wine which has “more intense and brighter colours” and “greater volume, greater freshness”, he added.

 Still largely unknown 

Wines are also aged underwater off the coast of the northwestern region of Galicia, where each year the Raul Perez Vineyards produce 1,200 bottles of Albarino, a zesty local wine which is excellent with fish and seafood.

Two other firms will soon join the market: Undersea, based in the southeastern region of Murcia, which wants to start with a yearly production of between 50,000 and 60,000 bottles, and Bodega Palmera Castro y Magan, which currently produces wines in La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands.


Maria Nancy Castro Rodriguez, owner of Bodega Palmera Castro y Magan, underlines this niche is still at a pioneering stage. “There is little information, no bibliography, no analytical basis nor practice,” she said.

Wines aged underground are still largely unknown and hard to find in restaurants and shops.

“We would like there to be more awareness of the concept of underwater wine on the part of consumers and professionals,” said Palacios.

Vilarasau, the sommelier, hopes underwater wines will follow the lead of natural wines — made without any chemical additives — which took off over the last decade.

“They are fashions which at first cost, but if the public tries and accepts the product, and likes it, it grows and takes shape,” he said.


Uphill battle: Spain’s wine growers forced to adapt to climate change

For over a century, Joaquin Gay de Montella Estany's family produced wine in Spain's Mediterranean region of Catalonia, but the effects of climate change have pushed them to seek higher ground.

Uphill battle: Spain's wine growers forced to adapt to climate change
Over the past 60 years, average temperatures in Spain have risen by 1.3 degrees Celsius, forcing Spanish wine producers to adapt. Photo: Josep Lago/AFP

Now their Torre del Veguer winery also has vineyards at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains — at an altitude of nearly 1,200 metres (3,900 feet) — where temperatures are cooler.

It’s one of the ways in which Spain’s wine producers are trying to adapt, as a warmer climate advances the harvest season and makes the need for more heat-tolerant grape varieties greater.

In searing August heat, farm workers pick the white grapes by hand at a vineyard with sea views in Penedes, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of the city of Barcelona.

Higher temperatures have brought the grape harvest forward by 10 to 15 days over the past decade, said Gay de Montella Estany, who owns the ecological winery.

“We have to harvest at the start of August when the heat is the most intense,” he told AFP.

So in 2008, the company moved part of its production to Bolvir, a village in the Pyrenees near the French border.

Speedy ripening

With a total of 961,000 hectares (2.4 million acres) of vines, Spain has the largest area of vineyards in the world, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine says.

It is the third biggest wine producer behind Italy and France.

Over the past 60 years, average temperatures in Spain have risen by 1.3 degrees Celsius, according to the national weather office, Aemet.

And wine producers have seen an impact, as the timing of the harvest is crucial.

An employee tends to the grapevines at the Torres vineyard at a 950-metre altitude in Tremp near Lleida in the Catalan Pyrenees. 

Higher average temperatures speed up the ripening of the grapes, which leads to lower acidity and increased sugars in the fruit.

This yields higher alcohol levels in the wine and also alters other compounds in grapes that affect aroma and flavour.

Grapes must be picked quickly to avoid an excessive alcohol content.

“Essentially these grapes have not fully ripened in the right way,” said Fernando Zamora, a professor in the oenology department at Rovira I Virgili University in Tarragona.


The Familia Torres winery, one of Spain’s largest producers, embraced higher elevation more than 20 years ago, despite facing scepticism at the time.

The company, which has grown from a small family business in the late 19th century, began planting grapes in Tremp, 160 kilometres northeast of its Vilafranca de Penedes base, in 1998.

Grapes for making wine had never been grown before at higher altitudes in this region in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

“Farmers in the area thought it was absurd. They thought grapes would not mature,” said Xavier Admella, who is in charge of the farm located at an altitude of 950 metres.

“Climate change has proven us right,” he added, as workers set up nets to protect the vines from hail which is much more common along mountain ranges.

Ancient grape varieties are treated in vitro at the Torres vineyard lab in Vilafranca del Penedes near Barcelona.

New techniques

In Tremp, temperatures are almost 10 degrees Celsius cooler than at sea level, Miguel A. Torres, president of the Familia Torres winery, said.

That makes it possible to grow grape varieties to produce white wines “that still have very good acidity levels”, he added.

The company, which exports to 150 countries, also has a laboratory where it revives grape strains that have almost disappeared.

One of them which performs well at high altitudes has already been planted in Tremp.

But the fight to adapt has a stiff price tag.

“The future is complicated,” Torres said, adding the wine sector had asked for aid from both the Spanish government and European Union.

Gay de Montella Estany agrees.

He predicts that Spain’s wine sector will have to go on planting at higher altitudes and “look for grape varieties that ripen later” to survive.

He does not rule out that some parts of the country, especially in the south, will one day no longer be suitable for wine production.

Not everyone is as pessimistic, though.

“Climate change is leading many wineries to get their act together and learn how to make wine, not like our grandparents did, but by looking for new techniques,” university professor Zamora said.

“And wines are now much better than they were a few years ago.”