Ocean-Aged Wine

On the ocean floor off the Basque coast, a French vintner's harvest is aging to perfection. Guy Martin shadows him from his sunny vineyards to the waters above his wine "cellar" deep in the sea.

By: Guy Martin

Vintner and wine entrepreneur Emmanuel Poirmeur, 38, founder and owner of the Egiategia vineyards on the Côte Basque, pops the cork on one of his 2013 white cuvées, built on the Colombard and Ugni blanc grapes. Gathered here at Poirmeur's winery for a cellar visit and a tasting are the Peirazeau family, mother-and-daughter vintners from the Burgundy house bearing their name, who open a bottle of their white. The Peirazeaus have brought friends, including a prominent wine merchant from Bordeaux.

The visitors break out a staggering picnic hamper to go with the wines: peppery homemade pâté de campagne, cured ham, a wedge of rich, goaty, local Ossau-Iraty, andouille, baguettes, and, representing the sea, two pounds of whelks fresh from the jagged shoreline rocks, with toothpicks to spear the wily raw snails out of their shells. The food and wine adorn a simple metal café table on Poirmeur's terrace—which overlooks the graceful northern sweep of Saint-Jean-de-Luz Bay in the heart of the Côte Basque. The bounty of seaside France is heaped in a perfect Matisse still life before us. But before anybody paints this tableau, we're going to devour it.

"Now," says Poirmeur with a glint in his eye, "we'll have a little war."

By that he means testing the Peirazeaus' Burgundy and his Côte Basque Colombard against the food and debating which wine goes better with what. It's a win-win war, two intensely pleasurable hours of tempting, collegial enjoyment before we are done. Does the black pepper in the pâté hit Poirmeur's Colombard right, or do the whelks do it better—here, let me have another bite. A degustation by the ocean is timeless—something the Gallic tribes were doing before the Romans came.

As we polish off our feast on the terrace and are about to inspect his vast old stone cellar, Poirmeur admonishes, "This doesn't happen every day."

Actually, that's not true. I had the good fortune to be with Poirmeur every day for a jam-packed work week of preparations for last year's harvest—a kind of Coastal Living wine-by-the-sea agroturisme work-exchange program. Folks arrived at the winery every day—a hotelier picking up 15 cases for a business conference, a Biarritz bistro owner dropping by for a dozen cases, a Basque pastry chef wanting a chat. They want to get next to, sniff, taste, and buy Poirmeur's work, and to pick his brain.

After a few days, it's clear: The man is a young, bold rock star in the heady cosmos of French winemaking. It's as if gastronomic France, home to Earth's most fabled food and drink, has embraced Poirmeur as a grapevine would a trellis. Poirmeur is that new structure of wine.

How did he get that way? The short answer is that he was born French, with one of those discerning, ultrasubtle palates that seem to occur among certain humans who are … well, born with remarkable frequency in France. The long answer is that he was born a bit of a rebel.

Poirmeur grew up on the romantic Île Saint-Louis, that luxe jewel-box island in the Seine in the middle of Paris, but his grandparents spent summers in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and he spent his childhood holidays in the Basque country. He speaks Basque. Just two hours south of Bordeaux, this had been wine country, but viniculture had died out by the time Poirmeur was walking the hills with his grandfather.

Poirmeur holds economic and wine-making degrees, a rare double-barrelled academic pedigree, which led to his years as a viticulture industry expert at French bank Crédit Agricole, and then to his years with his hands actually on the grapes at two bastions of Bordeaux excellence, Château Margaux and Château Siran. He bailed from the big châteaux to realize his dream at home in Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

"The region and the climate weren't hostile to the vines—holding onto the land just became difficult," Poirmeur explains. "But I've wanted to make wine since I was 8, which is one reason I said to my grandfather that I'd return here to make it."

Poirmeur is not simply bringing winegrowing back to a region where it died. Egiategia, which translates from Basque as "The truth of the truth," is a revolutionary wine house in its vinification process. As a trained oenologist and a grandchild of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Poirmeur had long theorized that aging wine at a sufficient sea depth would provide a more stable average temperature. So he got some watertight but gas-permeable 70-gallon casks, filled them with wine, sunk them in 4-ton concrete sheaths that he had anchored into the seabed 50 feet down behind Saint-Jean-de-Luz's stone breakwater, and left them there for nine months. It took a crane, a dive boat, four scuba divers, and a few hundred pounds of lead dive weights to guide the wine casks into their concrete berths for the winter, none of which is how vintners have traditionally gone about aging their grape juice, at least not in the known 8,000-year history of making wine. Nine months later, the result was a spectacular sort of lightness, a cradled quality. The ocean had rocked that wine into being as a mother would a baby. Poirmeur began in 2008 producing blends of cellar- and sea-aged wines, and has reserved parts of recent harvests for bottling cuvées of 100-percent sea-aged wines. He's expanding his undersea tanks to receive an entire harvest on the sea floor.

When news of the successful bottling of his first "sea wine" hit France's tightly bound winemaking world in 2011—after some 50 undersea tests on his harvests since 2008—it was as if a bomb had gone off. Hordes of winemakers were beating at his door for a taste—the sea wine lent a swift and sure maturity to his blends. Poirmeur was some kind of sorcerer. As he blazed the trail to the sea floor, however, a few other vintners with submarine dreams were working hard to realize their own sea wines. Growers in France, Italy, Greece, South Africa, Australia, and the Napa Valley currently have wine aging on the sea floor, some of them putting individual bottles wired in great stainless steel cages, and some putting casks into the deep. Distillers in the Cayman Islands are experimenting with aging rum, and brewers in Scotland are piling seaproof tanks of beer down on the bottom of the North Sea.

All of Poirmeur's wine springs from the rocky dirt of the Basque coast, so this morning we're headed up for an inspection of 10 acres of his vines in Urrugne, the village just inland from Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Every winemaker has a truck, and Poirmeur's truck is a purring Jaguar—this is the Côte Basque, after all. But, in a nod to winemaking practicality, it's a Jaguar station wagon. "I can fit 60 cases—of six bottles each—into this car," Poirmeur laughs as I accuse him of posh Côte Basque automotive tastes, "and I bottle, label, and deliver orders so people can see that I'm doing it myself."

We dismount from the farm Jag atop a perfect row of rolling wine hills facing the ocean, and to Spain. He strides down a long row of vines, tasting a couple of grapes, jerking the espaliered tendrils higher to expose the low fruit to the sun. "We have work," he sniffs. "The grapes aren't ready." Poirmeur points to a ragged-edged mountain about 20 miles south, in Spain.

"That peak is Jaizkibel, in Basque," he says. "It's the weather knife that allows these hills to have the sun. Storms come off the Atlantic, and the mountain sweeps the clouds and rain south, toward Spain, giving us the wine microclimate here."

Poirmeur's wine is sunk under a modest yellow buoy about 50 yards off the lee side of the breakwater, at the wild eastern edge of the Atlantic. After grapes are harvested in the fall, the wine winters behind the sea wall as ferocious storms pound the breakwater with 60-foot-tall waves.

Poirmeur likes to check his buoy and its chunk of sea often. Because Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a beloved yachting destination, many skippers mistake the buoy for a mooring. Yellow with a black cross on it, his buoy is meant to deter the yachtsmen from tying up, but its signage doesn't work all that well. Whether a yacht is on it or not, Poirmeur likes to head out to the buoy to see if anything is out of place or has popped loose, and, not least, to ride herd on the condition of the protective breakwater, which is nigh on 400 years old.

The morning we try to motor out to the buoy, Poirmeur's oceangoing wine truck, a sea-worn former oyster skiff christened the Fun, develops a cranky engine. We try to coax the Fun to life, but she won't budge.

A schooled ocean kayaker, Poirmeur suggests we "paddle out" instead. On Socoa Beach in front of the winery, we commandeer a two-man oceangoing kayak, one of the orange plastic crafts with no gunwhales and nominal seats. You half-straddle this thing, as if you were riding a swimming alligator. We saddle up and sally forth.

This isn't as easy as heading up to the Urrugne fields in the farm Jag. The wine lies on the seabed about a mile northwest of the winery. Poirmeur is in the aft, or skipper's, seat; I'm pulling in the bow.

When we get there, the buoy is secure, but the tide is so strong that we can only hold its grab-loop and get beaten around in circles, slo-mo-Neptune style. It's exhilarating being where the wine and the sea are communing in production. What's 50 feet below us has been through the winter, the spring, and is wine now. This seems an extreme place to vinify because it is so hostile to humans. The extraordinary wine intelligence is that Poirmeur somehow sensed the grape could take it.

Not surprisingly for a man who uses scuba divers, oyster boats, and 4-ton concrete berths to make wine, Poirmeur wants to head back around the windy, ocean side of the breakwater.

Gonna be some chop, I tell him.

"It's one of the few days we could do it in a kayak," he says, squinting at the Atlantic, barely calm enough to tolerate us. We bash out for a couple of hundred yards before turning around the breakwater's forbidding rock face. Sweating, with the heavier wash running over our bow, it takes me a bit to see just how right it is that this winemaker wants to be out here, fighting the big water, taking the hard way home.

So this is aqua-farming, and you're the farmer, I tease him.

"That's right," Poirmeur snaps back, not missing a stroke, "and a young one. Being a farmer in France is a very good thing."

Guy Martin is a Berlin-based correspondent for Forbes and other American and British magazines who divides his time between Europe and his native Alabama.