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Time Travel in a Champagne Bottle


When researchers examined a 170-year-old Champagne bottle, discovered in a shipwreck, they learned more about 19th century’s tastes and winemaking.

When divers were exploring a shipwreck in the northern Baltic Sea in 2010, they discovered dozens of bottles of 170-year-old Champagne, it ignited a storm of interest. Historians and bubbly lovers speculated on where the wines had been bound—perhaps the court of Russia’s czar—and how they tasted. Some bottles were auctioned off in two sales, for record prices.

Five years later, divers have retrieved 168 bottles from the wreck (as well as five bottles of beer), and researchers have tasted and analyzed some of the sparkling wines. Their findings, recently published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offer a window into the history of Champagne, encompassing both the winemaking of the early 19th century and the tastes of the era’s consumers.

The divers exploring the wreck off the coast of the Åland archipelago, a Finnish island chain between Finland and Sweden, saw a bottle of wine on their first trip down to the wreck. When they brought it up, the change in pressure popped the cork, and they sampled the contents. They hypothesized that they were drinking some extremely old Champagne.

They were, and there was a lot more in the ship’s hold. While the labels had washed off, brands on the corks revealed that most of the wines were from Champagne Juglar, which merged later with Jacquesson, while a significant number were from Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. A few came from Heidsieck & Co.

When dealing with Champagne that has spent approximately 170 years at the bottom of the ocean, you’d expect the quality to reflect its age and the circumstances of its underwater cellar. Recently, sommelier Larry Stone opened a bottle pulled from the 1864 wreck of a Civil War blockade runner at a wine festival and described aromas of “sauerkraut, cleaning fluid and vinegar.” The cork had shrunk and seawater had infiltrated the bottle.

The Baltic Champagnes, however, largely escaped that fate. They rested at a depth of 164 feet in murky water, completely cut off from the light, at a constant temperature of about 36° F to 39° F. Some of the bottles suffered from seawater contamination, but most remained perfectly sealed.

For the study, the scientists, led by Dr. Philippe Jeandet, a professor of food biochemistry at the University of Reims, gathered a panel of tasting experts—in this case enologists from Veuve Clicquot—to taste three Baltic samples, two from Veuve Clicquot and one from Juglar. For comparison, they also tasted three modern vintages of Veuve Clicquot (1955, 1980 and 2011).

Dominique Demarville, chef de caves of Veuve Clicquot, described the wine as void of bubbles and a “very dark, very golden yellow, amber.” The initial aroma was intense and off-putting, with smells of animal, mushroom and cheese. Once exposed to oxygen, “the wines became more pleasant, with a lot of flowers,” as well as oak, leather and tobacco. Upon tasting, Demarville was pleasantly surprised by the wines’ sweetness and discernible acidity and freshness.

“It was a lot of emotion for Veuve Clicquot and of course for me,” Demarville explained. “[In the mid-19th century] Madame Clicquot was still alive and she was involved. So that means these bottles were made by Madame Clicquot, which is wonderful, exceptional, for us.”

Following the tastings, researchers chemically analyzed the samples and were able to connect the tasters’ descriptors with chemical compounds in the wines. For example, the “cheesy” aroma correlated with butanoic and octanoic acids.

The most significant observation was the disparity in alcohol level and sugar content of the 19th century wines versus todays’ bubblies. Lower alcohol levels—9.5 percent compared to a typical 12.5 percent today—were probably due to a colder climate and less developed farming techniques, leading to less ripe grapes, lower sugar levels and ultimately lower alcohol.

The alcohol was also diluted by the addition of the dosage at the end of the winemaking process, which would explain the extremely sweet final product. “At the time of Madame Clicquot, the consumer preferred a Champagne with a very high sugar content,” said Jeandet. “[We] found 150 grams of sugar per liter. For comparison, what we call now Champagne brut, the sugar content is around 6 to 8 grams per liter.”

The high sugar content also offers a clue as to where the ship was headed. Historical letters between Madame Clicquot and a Russian friend document that Russians preferred their wine with 300 grams per liter—sweeter than the salvaged wine. (It was common practice in Imperial Russia at that time to keep a bowl of sugar next to one’s glass and add more to satisfy personal taste.)

The researchers believe the cargo was bound for a country with moderately sweet tastes, perhaps in the German Confederation. Both French and German consumers typically ordered Champagne at that sweetness level. English customers preferred their bubblies even drier.

Without a name for the ship, the researchers will probably never know definitively where the vessel was coming from or going. But Jeandet doesn’t see this as a defeat. “This is an enigmatic shipwreck, but a very, very nice adventure.”


By Christine Dalton, Wine Spectator