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Underwater drop anyone? Winemakers use the ocean as their cellar in an Australian first

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 28/07/2022 By Kirsty O'Brien for Movin' to the Country
Sasha McDonald at Glenarty Road vineyard. (Supplied: Sasha McDonald) © Provided by ABC NEWS Sasha McDonald at Glenarty Road vineyard. (Supplied: Sasha McDonald)

Tales of pirates on the high seas and lost shipwrecks have no doubt inspired many bold endeavours.

For winemaker Sasha McDonald the idea of sunken treasures has led to the creation of an Australian first sparkling wine, cellared at the bottom of the sea. 

"I mean, you might have heard of stories about ancient shipwrecks that have been discovered with bottles of sparkling wine or champagne that have been matured perfectly underwater, pulled up hundreds of years later and they're still in mint condition," Ms McDonald says.

"That was kind of where the idea started from, but we've played with it a little bit."

Sasha was inspired to make her own drinkable treasure. It led to a collaboration between her family's Glenarty Road vineyard and Rare Foods Australia — the world's first commercial abalone producer.

In 2019, they dropped a couple of hundred bottles into the deep blue sea near Augusta in Western Australia and crossed their fingers and toes.

Rare Foods provided the casing for the bottles in the safety of abalone nets in their ocean farms for the crates to be stored safely.   

Lowering the wine is a job left to divers, braver than most. This stretch of the ocean comes with very big sharks and rough seas.

Smooth sailing it isn't

This wine was almost never made. 

Several years ago, Sasha's husband, Ben McDonald, was about to make the tough decision to pull up the vines on the generational family farm, which was losing $60,000 a year. 

"The management investment scheme and the ups and downs of the wine industry meant the price went from $2,500 a tonne down to $800," Mr McDonald says.

"I was making a pretty good loss. Six years ago, I decided I was pulling the vineyard out and putting 300 sheep in the vineyard to eat all the grapes off."  

But a serendipitous knock at the door from a keen young winemaker, who would become his wife, changed those plans.  

  

They now operate a successful paddock-to-plate restaurant and wine label that has changed the fortunes of Glenarty Road.

That includes the successful experimentation with the underwater sparkling drop.

The trial bottles spent 14 months at the bottom of the sea.

When they were brought to the surface, they had a definite shipwreck appearance. Coral and crustaceans had taken up residency on the bottles adding to the aesthetic charm.  

"There were hundreds of different species of crabs, eels and little baby abalones growing on them," Ms McDonald says.    

Can the sea really change the taste?

But all this extra work is not just to give the bottles a stand-out story. There is a scientific theory too, that the lees — the dead yeast particles that form a fermentation in the wine — are naturally stirred by the extreme currents of the Southern Ocean.  

"What we are trying to do in the Margaret River region is produce world-class wine," Ms McDonald says.  

"For us, we want to build a beautiful texture into the wines that we produce.

"We've lowered down our sparkling on full lees. It's still on the fermentation solids.

"The bottles are laid on their side in crates and we basically just let the gentle ocean current move the bottles from side to side, stir up those lees and build that texture — kind of like you would stir a chardonnay barrel to build up flavour."

The underwater conditions are thought to emulate the critical ageing factors that influence the flavour of wine: consistent temperatures, the absence of light, air, and movement.   

Ms McDonald also thinks the salty surroundings may also change up the taste.

"We have done some blind tasting comparing a control, which didn't go underwater at all, but stayed in a similar condition," she says.

"This 'Fathoms' Cuvée has a pretty amazing textural component, almost with a slight salinity to it that we get anyway in this vineyard because we are so close to the Southern Ocean.

"It has really enhanced that, and just creates such a unique and, I guess, a real sense of place for that one wine."

Big champagne houses also on board

The practice of submerging wine is slowly growing worldwide, particularly among the big champagne houses in France and winemakers in Spain and Chile, although it is the subject of a legal battle in the United States due to sanitary concerns.

The world's first underwater wine congress was held in 2019 to explore topics such as the marine sustainability of the new industry.  

"We have learnt that other people are doing it around the world. It's quite exciting," Ms McDonald says.

At Glenarty Road Cellars, the endeavour to dive in deep has paid off with each bottle fetching several hundred dollars and they have just lowered another 550 bottles into the ocean this year for cellaring. 

It's a risk that is paying off for the McDonalds.

"Now we actually want to make a proper business out of it," Mr McDonald says.

"It's all about good products going in and the care and handling, and I think there's something magical in the ocean as well."

To learn more about Sasha and Ben McDonald's underwater drop and other innovative stories, watch Movin' to the Country on ABC TV, Fridays at 7:30pm or any time on ABC iview


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