Underneath a buoy in a picturesque harbor in France are tanks of fermenting grapes. It turns out the sea is a perfect place to begin the winemaking process.
Story: Mary Ann DeSantis | Illustration: Josh Clark
Basque winemaker Emmanuel Poirmeur wants to create a New World wine in the Old World… and not just any Old World, but in southwest France just a stone’s throw from the world-famous and very traditional Bordeaux region.
“I wanted to make wine that pairs well with local seafood and Basque cuisine,” says the winemaker, who lives in Ciboure just across the picturesque bay from France’s leading tuna fishing port of St. Jean de Luz. “We needed a white wine, especially one with just a little effervescence. I wanted to create a new wine that did not taste like a copy.”
Like many young winemakers, Poirmeur is bucking some of the traditions that have been in place for hundreds of years. After studying and working in wineries from New Zealand to South America and Mexico, the 36-year-old returned to his beloved French Basque homeland to start Egia Tegia, which means “the truth workshop” in the Basque language.
Tanks are submerged for three to six months, which pressurizes the wine and gives it a very slight effervescence.
The Basque country spans the border between France and Spain on the Atlantic coast and through the Pyrenees mountains. When the Romans invaded Gaul (now France) in 58 B.C., they recorded the presence of the Basque people, although it is believed the Basques were in the area long before the Romans arrived. Loyal to their roots, the Basques have their own language, customs and traditions, and a cuisine that blends the best ingredients from France and Spain. Surprisingly, Poirmeur is one of the few Basque winemakers.
He uses primarily Chardonnay and Ugni Blanc grapes (more commonly known as Trebbiano). Ugni blanc is the most widely planted white grape in France and is often used for table wines and blending. With Poirmeur’s winemaking magic, however, the grape is the basis for one of his most popular and delicious white wines called “Dena Dela.”
“We have only six dozen bottles of the 2012 vintage left,” he said in early May.
What makes the wine so unique is Poirmeur’s cellaring technique — he ferments 10 percent of his grapes underwater in the bay of St. Jean de Luz. Tanks are submerged for three to six months, which pressurizes the wine and gives it a very slight effervescence. The remaining 90 percent is cellared at his winery in the traditional way in stainless steel tanks made in Oregon. He only blends in 10 percent of underwater-cellared wine because he wants “just a little bit of sparkling.”
The sea provides a constant temperature and pressure for the tanks, which are submerged to depths of about 15 meters (about 50 feet). When the tanks are ready to be brought up, Poirmeur dons his scuba gear and retrieves them with the help of friends.
Poirmeur explains older winemakers are often resistant to change, but they are curious about what he is doing. “More than 1,200 winemakers from France have come to see the winery, even the ones from large chateaus in Bordeaux,” he says. “Some of them say I’m getting crazy.”
But that could change as more and more people hear about his successful techniques. The top Japanese chefs in France already clamor for the crisp and refreshing wines that pair well with sushi, and several of France’s highly respected Michelin-starred restaurants offer Egia Tegia wines.
Poirmeur says the large Basque community in Tampa has also heard about his wines and has expressed interest in getting them in the U.S. He is working with a distributor to do just that as he works to produce his 2013 vintage.[divider_1px]