New Enology Frontiers: Wine Aged Underwater. The Story of Pierluigi Lugano, ‘Lord of the Abyss’, from School Teacher to Inventor of a Method that is Changing the Seven Seas

The first time you see a bottle you are fascinated and intrigued, as you approach it with curiosity. You take it in your hands amazed by the shells anchored to the glass in a random order that only nature can engineer. It reminds of the rock that you used to dive from during summer or the bottom of a boat that has been in port for too long. This is your first Abissi, sparkling wine aged underwater. It looks like a bottle saved from a shipwreck, you would expect to see it on the table of Blackbeard, Davy Jones and One-eyed Willy as they toast the conquest of the seven seas.
After the initial astonishment, you open it and pour it into your glasses. Once the froth is lost, you notice the intense and brilliant color like old gold. You hold the glass and breathe in. You can perceive in your noise the first brackish notes, then citrus zest, and finally scents of hazelnut and panettone. When tasting it, you feel the bubbles gush from the tongue to the palate. It is a velvety caress, fresh and saline, with a final touch of acidity that immediately activates salivation.
The flavor you experience in your mouth is so pleasant, as you keep recalling it between tongue and palate. It reminds you of hazelnut cream, the flesh of a peach with a hint of lemon and a lash of iodine. You turn to the diners and exclaim ‘oh my goodness!’.

The revolutionary practice of underwater aging

Cantina Bisson vino
Grapes from Bisson Winery

The practice of underwater aging has been going on for a few years now in the world of wines and spirits. There are many wineries that decide to sink their bottles, enclosed in metal caissons, leaving them to mature in the depths of the sea. Whites, reds, sparkling wines, passiti… we have plenty of them for every palate. Even beers and spirits end up at the bottom of the sea, rocked by the waves, to add an iodine lash to their bouquet and a pirate-like charm to toasts.

Wines are refined underwater in France, Spain, United States, Chile, South Africa and many other countries. In Italy, there are many examples, from Ravenna (where Tenuta Del Paguro ages bottles in the wreckage of a sunken platform) to the Sicilian islands of Ciclopi, where 2000 bottles of Etna Doc signed Benanti and Cantina Passopisciaro rest at 50 meters depth, as well as 200 bottles of Volcano Gin, Etna’s finest gin. Even in Trentino, in the lake Levico, bottles of Trento Doc Dosaggio Zero ‘Lagorai’ from the Romanese winery, are waiting to be fished out and uncorked.

The many examples of underwater aging

In the Gulf of Tigullio, we have Jamin Portofno, an underwater cellaring company has sprung up. All you have to do is reach out for consultation and hand over your bottles to the company. The company will immerse them to refine for the producer and certify each transaction through blockchain technology, the same inviolable tracking system on which Bitcoin is based. Jamin also submerges bottles of Champagne Cloe Marie Kottakis -52 Underwater, which has chosen the waters of Ligurian Sea to spread its personality. Following the success of wine, here comes beer aged underwater. In Cuxhaven, Oliver Köhn, formerly a firefighter, devotes himself to the production and immersion of “underwater craft beer”. The production is promptly sold out as soon as it goes on sale.

The trend in a short time has spread to the luxury tourism sector as well. On the Raa Atoll, off the private island on which the Emerald Maldives Resort&Spa is located, hundreds of bottles of Sangiovese from the Tuscan hills were sunk. With the same aim, thinking even bigger, a few years ago the travel agency Cookson Adventures, together with the underwater research company Oceangate, decided to implement its dream experience offering a submarine ride around the wreck of the Titanic and then toasting its guests with a bottle of 1907 Heidsieck Gout Champagne, salvaged from the remains of a Swedish schooner sunk during World War I.
In short, the allure of the deep has now contaminated and amplified the wine world, creating a completely new trend that many identified as passing but, in more than a decade, has enjoyed unprecedented consumer trends and opened up unexplored market segments.

Pierluigi Lugano, ‘Lord of the Abyss’

It is not about pure marketing, as we hold scientific and organoleptic evidence. A former professor from Chiavari could dream of it and then made it come true. Yes, you got it right, the underwater wine revolution has began in Italy thanks to a man who deserves to be starred in a film. His name is Pierluigi Lugano and Portofino Doc Metodo Classico Pas Dosé Abissi was the first wine to emerge from the seas.This is his story.

Pierluigi Lugano
Pierluigi Lugano, owner of Bisson Winery in Chiavari

The Man

Pierluigi Lugano, known to everyone as Piero, was born in Narzole (CN) in 1948. Swimmer’s stature, proud but never arrogant, mild attitude and yet determined, very determined. Today, many people call him The Lord of the Abyss, after the title of his book, co-written with gastronome Paolo Massobrio. Piero never denies a visit or an interview when contacted. He is helpful and kind like the most sensitive people. He’s a quiet man but, as soon as you ask him about his work, he starts explaining every detail of it and would never stop.

He has always and viscerally loved wine and the sea and, thanks to his intuition and stubbornness, has managed to combine these two passions inseparably. He was only 6 years old when he created his first wine. When he was a little boy, he went to help a classmate harvest the family vineyard and received bunches of Vermentino in return. He came home and secretly crushed the grapes into a large jar, then hid the whole thing and on St. Martin’s Day, November 11, tasted his first wine. His mother noticed his breath and grounded him but little did it matter. That was the first step in a long journey.

 Bisson Winery
The vineyards of the Bisson Winery

“Piero” Lugano, a man who deserves to be starred in a film

As a young man, Piero was very good at manual labor and competitive in water sports (swimming, water polo, rowing). Oriented by his father toward arts, he graduated as a master of art, designer and naval cabinetmaker. Thanks to his good marks, at the age if 22 he was hired as a teacher, first in Nuoro and then in Cittadella (PD). He met his sweetheart there: Wally Bisson, to whom he would dedicate the sign of their company. They moved to Chiavari in 1978 and opened a wine shop. Meanwhile, Piero continued to teach but becomes increasingly passionate about enology. He began buying grapes in the surrounding area, pressing them in the winery, and making his own wine.

At the same time, he gave up a high school teaching position and graduates as a sommelier in Genoa with top honors. In 1989, he reached the minimum for retirement and, after buying his first hectare of vineyard in Sestri Levante, decided to totally devote himself to wineHe began with stills, concentrating on the grape varieties which are typical of his land (Albarola, Bianchetta, Vermentino, Granaccia, Ciliegiolo) without yielding to the lure of international grape varieties.

Unfortunately, fate was not kind with him and in 1996 he lost his inseparable wife Wally. Piero continues to run his wine shop with winery thanks to the help of his sister and his love for his daughter Marta, until he decides to try everything on his own, renting an abandoned 7-hectare vineyard in Val Graveglia. While tasting the Bianchetta grapes from that vineyard, inspired by the minerality and acidic freshness of the fruit, he began to design his sparkling wine.

The Intuition

cantina Bisson
A crate containing the company’s bottles, in the depths of Sestri Levante coast

When you ask Piero Lugano how he came up with the idea that is captivating half the world, his tale always starts from a dream he remembers as if it were yesterday and which stems from a biblical episode: The Wedding at Cana. A passage from the Gospel that ‘the lord of the depths’ has had in his mind since he was a child and used to go to church. In 1993, Piero dreams of being in the middle of the banquet and witnessing the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine. He also witnesses the anger of the master of ceremonies (maitre at the time) because he was serving such a good nectar at the end of the meal instead of the beginning.

According to Piero, that is the first moment in history when the quality of wine was celebrated, it was no longer just a food but a substance capable of giving hedonistic pleasure to those who taste it. The connection between this dream and the development of submarine aging is not clear, but Piero is always willing to emphasize its importance. Indeed, while continuing to reason about the ancient history of wine, a few days after that revelatory dream, our stubborn sommelier remembers the stories of his art history teacher.

An idea that becomes an obsession…

Mr. Pierulli often told of a shepherd in the Roman countryside who one day discovered a cave with ancient wine amphorae inside which the liquid had completely evaporated. Which is not the case, however, when the same amphorae are found inside wrecks that have been sinking for millennia. In these cases, the wine is preserved. So, Piero comes to the conclusion that in the absence of oxygen, the process of osmosis, responsible for the evaporation of the liquid, does not occur and that the sea has a positive effect on the nectar of Bacchus.

From that moment, the idea takes shape and soon becomes an obsession. It will take him 15 long years to fine-tune every detail, overcome bureaucratic hurdles and obtain the health authorizations to make his project come true. Fortunately, he finds Dr. Franco Macchiavello, who was a wine inspector at the Ministry of Agriculture at the time. Thanks to him his requests got to the offices in Rome and was later approved.
In May 2008, the stars aligned, first the go-ahead from the Ministry came and a few days later a phone call from Augusto Sartori arrived, owner of an osteria, formerly a customer of Bisson’s and president of the Portofino Marine Protected Area. After learning of the project, he proposed to Piero that the bottles were left on those very bottoms.

The nature reserve would celebrate the tenth anniversary of its establishment that year and sparkling wine aged underwater would be the perfect toast. So, once he found bottles capable of withstanding high pressures and crown caps made of a special rustproof alloy, in May 2009, Piero Lugano lowered his first 6500 bottles of Abissi Spumante to a depth of 60 meters off the coast of Cala degli Inglesi. It is the beginning of everything.

The Method

vini Bisson
The barrels where Bisson wine rest

The aesthetic part is neither the only nor the greatest advantage of underwater refinement. One of Piero’s firmest convictions from the beginning has been the ideal diving depth. Between 45 and 60 meters, the temperature is constant all year round, whatever weather we have. The light is also extremely soft. Under these conditions, aging proceeds at its best and there is no energy waste for air conditioning in the cellar.
One must then consider the pressure factor. On land the barometer counts 1 atmosphere, but underwater the pressure increases by a new atmosphere every 10 meters. At a depth of 60 metres the pressure is exactly 7 atm, that is the exact same value as inside a bottle of sparkling wine. This equivalence according to Piero creates a kind of ideal balance that allows the carbon dioxide bubbles to best disperse within the wine and give a fine, persistent and creamy taste to its Abissi. The size of the bubbles is one of the most important parameters in determining the quality of a sparkling wine: the smaller they turn out, the more creamy the wine will be perceived and judged by any kind of palate, expert or not.

The advantages of underwater refinement

We should not forget, and perhaps here is one of the most innovative aspects, the action of currents and wave motion. Deep down, the bottles undergo a continuous micro-movement, as if they were perpetually rocked by the perpetual motion of the sea. This movement is equivalent to remuage, which is the daily quarter-turn that each bottle of sparkling wine receives during aging. This keeps the yeasts locked in the bottle from sticking to the glass and to promote the exchange between them and the wine.

This process in an underwater environment takes place continuously. The yeasts are perpetually sunspended and yield more aroma and proteins to the drink. The former increase its aromas and flavors, the latter smooth its ‘thickness’, making the wine more velvet to the sip. Indeed, when tasting a bottle of Abissi, it seems like one is drinking a sparkling wine aged well over a year and a half.
The scents of hazelnut and bread crust are clearly there and the wine achieves greater aromatic richness than a sparkling wine aged for the same amount of time on the ground. The smoothness of the nectar is also clearly remarkable, despite the fact that no sugar mixture is added before the final corking. The last plus, but not in strategic terms, is saving some space in the cellar, which is essential in a ‘narrow’ land like Liguria, where wineries are carved out of terraces in the rocky slopes overlooking the sea.

The Wine

Bisson vino sott'acqua
Cellar bottles after aging underwater

The great thing about it (as if more was needed) is that what makes this wine unique is not only the method, but also the area which can be read and tasted with Abissi.
Let’s start with the blend of grapes used. Piero uses three grape varieties that are very famous within his region: Bianchetta genovese, Vermentino and Cimixà. The first one brings sapidity and freshness, the last one is responsible for the fruity aromas, while the third helps to enhance the nectar’s structure and power. The latter is a very rare grape variety, as in our country it only grows in the Sestri Levante area, imported centuries ago by crusaders from the Middle East who were fascinated by the beauty of its grapes. Luigi Veronelli, the greatest cantor of wine that Italian history has ever had, spoke profusely about it in the 1960s when it was still only vinified in still and raisin versions.

The grape varieties of Abissi

This triad of grape varieties is strongly recognizable and unique when we think that almost all the world employs the same method as French Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The same can be said about Abissi Rosato made from the local red grape varieties Granaccia and Ciliegiolo. Then, we should mention the land. That of Tigullio is a very impervious area, made of cliffs overhanging the sea, where breezes and winds blow continuously enriching the soils where the vines grow with iodine. This gives flavor and a salty note to the grapes, which Piero has decided to enhance through winery techniques.

Once the grapes are harvested, he does not squeeze them gently and immediately, as is usually done for sparkling wines. He first removes the stems, softly breaks the berries and then lets them macerate at 0°C for a couple of days. As a result, many aromatic and saline substances dissolve into the must. Only then, he squeezes them thoroughly several times to extract all those notes that tell the story of the Tigullio land.

The cuvées

Once several wines have been obtained from the individual grape varieties, more or less hard pressing, we come to one of the most important and creative moments in the process. Piero brings the wine samples into the office of his winery in Sestri Levante and takes some time. He waits for night to fall and opens the windows overlooking the sea. During that moment of solitude, pervaded by the smell of iodine and the sound of the sea, Piero tastes the wines and lets his instincts guide him through the blends that will later become the cuvèe of his three sparkling wines.

During that moment, he has everything the name stands for: wine, sea and that sensibility of a man who had the courage to go for the unexplored. The cuvées are then bottled with a mixture of sugar and yeast and corked again to carry out the second fermentation that will give life to the bubbles. After frothing, the bottles are lowered into the sea and left to age: 18 months for the Abissi, 24 for the Rosé, 36 for the Riserva. Once returned to the surface, the bottles are taken back and topped off with the same wine without the addition of liquor d’expédition. Indeed, all Piero’s sparkling wines have always strictly been pas dosè to enhance the salty taste of the Ligurian grapes.
Finally, each bottle is sealed by the transparent film and placed on the market, ready to be uncorked (or why not, tasted) while dreaming of Captain Flint’s treasure.

Abissi spumante


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