Abissi: a sparkler from deep beneath the sea

DSCN1416 written by Michael Oudyn

So here we are at Puritan and Company, an up-and-coming restaurant in Cambridge, MA.  The chef wins awards, the restaurant gets positive chatter.  But the main draw, for me at least, is an intriguing sparkler from Liguria on the Italian Riviera. None of us ever heard of it. It costs as much as well-known French champagnes.   We have pre-ordered a bottle: “only ten bottles left.” So what is it about Abissi?  Well, it is not your everyday sparkler, aged in a common cellar. It is lowered 200 feet under the sea in a noncorrosive stainless-steel cage where it is aged in Mediterranean salt water for 13 months. Thus, the name Abissi which can mean “abyss”, “deep”, or “hell.” The New York Times tells the story.  About ten years Piero Lugano, artist turned wine merchant, turned wine maker, decides to make a sparkling wine in the classic champagne method from two humble indigenous grapes: vermentino and bianchetta. Unfortunately he doesn’t have enough space to age it.  Suddenly “a light went off in (his) head. Why not put the wine under the sea.”  In a flash Piero realizes the sea could be the ideal place for aging sparklers. “The temperature is perfect, there’s no light, the water prevents even the slightest bit of air from getting in, and the constant counterpressure keeps the bubbles bubbly.”  And the “underwater currents act like a crib, gently rocking the bottles and keeping the lees moving through the wine” which is crucial to the process. But would the notoriously recalcitrant Italian bureaucracy once again thwart creativity? After all the job of the Area Marina Protetta di Portofino is to keep people from throwing things in the water, not to aid and abet them.  But sound scientific and ecological reason wins out; the bureaucrats see that aging sparklers several leagues under the sea would have “zero impact on the fragile ecosystem and demonstrate (their) philosophy of a positive synergy between man and nature.” The first bottles go down on 20 May, 2009, and come back up again 13 months later.  Lugano pops cork, sips, and is pleased. Back at Puritan and Company the sommelier ceremoniously brings us our prize, and we get the story up close and personal, with a few other tasty tidbits thrown in.  Like, underwater aging is also being tried somewhere in Greece and somewhere off the coast of North Carolina (sic). And it is duly impressed upon us how lucky, indeed privileged, we are.  “All of California could only get ten bottles of Abissi” and Puitan and Company has procured several cases of Abissi.  It turns they have insider clout; they have been featuring another of Piero’s wines, Marea Cinque Terre, for quite a while Then, on to the inevitable tasting.  First, we take a little smell.  Well, not exactly of the wine itself, but of the still-uncorked bottle.  “See how it smells of the sea?” said the sommelier.  Sniff, sniff. Very like the sea indeed.  A funky, stale sea smell.   Salt water traces have spent the long journey from the Italian Riviera to Cambridge, Mass pressed between the bottle and a plastic sheath. Then we check the appearance.  Again, of the bottle, not of the wine.  It is dark and opaque, somewhat sinister and brooding. The sommelier removes the plastic wrap and points to a little shrimp-like sea beast carcass which apparently gave up the ghost while clinging to the bottle. The last bottle he unwrapped revealed an impressive starfish.  “Look at that, straight from the sea.” Then, we get to the wine itself.  That is the point after all, isn’t it?  Well, maybe not always.  This humble sparkler seems a bit of an afterthought. Left on our own, the verdict is unanimous: quite a nice easy-drinking sparkler. But worth the price of a well-known champagne?   “No way.” “Are you kidding?”  Still I don’t feel a sucker in any way. I feel I have paid fair-market price for a good yarn and a fine show.  And we have been waltzed through a very interesting case study in brilliant marketing.  The crisp, pleasant wine is pure added value.   Later it occurs to me that our little group has something in common with high-roller trophy-wine drinkers.  Real players shell out hundreds of dollars for just a sip of an 18th century Madeira because it is supposedly from Thomas Jefferson’s personal stash. We mere mortals split the cost of a bottle of overpriced sparkler because it has been hugged by a crayfish and gently wafted by the underwater currents of the Italian Riviera.  Neither group is too worried about how the wine actually tastes. Now, aging sparkling wine under 200 feet of sea water may or may not be the brilliant wave of the future.  Who knows? But give “Abissi” its due: this is world-class marketing.  Wine is like other products; the story sells. And what a story!  “Sun-tanned artist turned wine merchant” makes limited-edition sparkler from indigenous grapes at Golfo Paradiso; has brilliant epiphany, the product of his twin passion of wine and the sea; wins over notoriously recalcitrant Italian bureaucracy; demonstrates “the synergy between man and nature”. That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it. And why the hell not?  When The Times article was published “it was yet to be determined how many bottles would come to the States, and what the price would be.”  The bottles appear to be limited, but the price is profitably high.


“I’d like to be, under the sea…”


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