03 January 2014 by Denise Slabbert

Shipwrecks and Shiraz

What do shipwrecks and Shiraz have in common? Quite a lot when it comes to Hidden Valley Wines ...

The lighthouse at Agulhas, close to where the Shipwreck Shiraz was 'dropped'

Hidden Valley Wines recently launched its Shipwreck Shiraz 2009, which is a wine with a story to tell. And the tale is best told by Dave Hidden, owner of Hidden Valley and something of a romantic and wine maverick.

'My father was determined to find passage to South Africa in order to be reunited with his sweetheart, my mother, who he'd met in Durban when his regiment sailed in convoy to Egypt,' he says. According to Hidden, in 1946 his father paid £300 for this voyage on the barely seaworthy Merasheen, and spent nine months at sea having the adventure of a lifetime … but that’s another story (for now).

Hidden Valley Shipwreck Shiraz 2009 Hidden Valley Shipwreck Shiraz 2009

Some 60 years later, Hidden bought a grape farm in Elim in the Western Cape and one day, when visiting the Cape Agulhas lighthouse, he had an imaginative idea: 'Looking around me, I thought: "Why grow grapes down here and take them back to our cellars in Stellenbosch? Why not make the wine but mature it right here under the sea?"'

The idea fuelled his inspiration. 'I decided to make the sea an integral part of the winemaking process in a way that had never been attempted before. If you go to places such as Islay, off the west coast of Scotland, whisky-makers leave their maturation barrels on the quayside. The waves crash over them and infuse them with the flavours of the sea. No one, however, has matured wine whilst still in barrels below the waves.'

No one, however, has matured wine whilst still in barrels below the waves.

Hidden sought people who could provide the technical know-how to make his dream a reality, and also sought advice on how on how to create a very unique maritime maturation cellar for his 2009 Shiraz. He says, 'Superior red wines need to be oak-matured at consistent temperatures and humidity. Underwater at Cape Agulhas is an ideal, natural environment: the temperature is consistently around 13ºC and the humidity is constant!'

He says the big challenge was to immerse the barrel in the ocean, but at the same time prevent it from being ruined by the saltwater – so a container had to be built. A 225l strengthened French oak barrique was entombed in a reinforced concrete cask, into which holes had been designed. These allowed seawater to enter, circulate and permeate the oak. The heavy casing simultaneously prevented the barrique from being shattered by underwater currents.

A massive lid secured the barrique with stainless steel bolts as a deterrent to marine poachers (plus, the fact that a great white shark breeding area was close by meant the poachers weren't too keen).

Hidden Valley's barrel under the sea Hidden Valley's barrel under the sea

The barrel was dropped about 2km from the shore.

What happened next was a major coincidence that allows this tale to come full circle. At the time, Hidden had no idea that the place where he wanted to 'drop' his barrel of wine was not too far from where the Merasheen ship of the Hidden family history went down.

‘The name Merasheen was always known to myself but I had no idea as to what happened to it after my father and his friends sailed into Cape Town harbour in 1946. It was quite by chance that I saw the name on an old Agulhas shipwreck chart and I was astounded to discover it went down approximately 100km from where I had sunk the Shipwreck Shiraz into the Agulhas current.'

After some 15 months at the mercy of the currents of the Agulhas, the barrel was retrieved in March 2012.

Hidden, winemaker Emma Moffat and cellar staff opened the barrique and the results were good. Says Hidden, 'To our immense relief and joy, the wine had survived its ordeal wonderfully.'

The Shipwreck Shiraz 2009 is certainly a wine with a story – and perhaps the only wine that has matured under the watchful eye of great whites, turbulent Agulhas currents and a shipwreck called Merasheen.

For more information on Hidden Valley Wines, phone +27 (0)21 880 2646 or email info@hiddenvalleywines.co.za.

The gorgeous Hidden Valley wine estate. All images courtesy of Hidden Valley The gorgeous Hidden Valley wine estate. All images courtesy of Hidden Valley

Category: Food & Wine

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