Shipwrecked French Champagne – Revealing tastes from the past

Shipwreck - wine diver collage
Scientists say that 170-year old champagne found on a shipwreck at the bottom of the Baltic Sea actually tasted pretty good. The French bubbly is believed to be the oldest wine ever tasted, and although it was super-sweet, it also exhibited aromas of leather, tobacco and smoke.

French researchers are publishing their chemical analysis of the champagne today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, five years after 168 intact bottles were discovered by scuba divers off the Finnish coastline in 2010.
Shipwreck chamganeFrance is famous for its wine, and for good reason … they’ve been making wine longer than anyone else!

Philippe Jeandet, a biochemist at the University of Reims who is the lead author on the paper, didn’t get to drink any, but found that even a tiny whiff of the champagne tickled his nose for several hours.

shipwreck bottles of wine“My colleague put on my hand 100 microliters (.003 ounces) with a micro-syringe and it was fabulous, marvelous,” Jeandet said via Skype. “The aroma was tobacco and it remained in my mouth for two or three hours. It was remarkable.”

Jeandet said he was surprised by the amount of iron and copper elements in the wine. The iron likely came from nails in the wooden barrels used to age the champagne before bottling, and the copper likely from copper sulfate, which was used to kill fungus and mildew on grape vines. Today, most all champagnes are kept in stainless steel vats before being bottled. The team also found a small amount of gelatin, a protein used to stabilize and precipitate the wine, he said.

shipwreck trade route

The bottles were found about 165 feet deep in an old cargo ship that sank off the Aland Islands of Finland. The temperature at the bottom of the sea hovered just a few degrees above freezing, which helped keep the champagne well-preserved.

shipwreck corksThe corks did not deteriorate, even after 170 years, because there was liquid on both sides. Because they are built to withstand the pressure of a carbonation, champagne corks are also twice the size as the opening of the bottle, meaning they are denser than a standard wine cork. That also helped keep the champagne in good shape, according to Andrew Waterhouse, professor of enology at the University of California, Davis, and an expert in wine chemistry.

“Most wine will degrade because the cork degrades to the point where it no longer seals the bottle,” Waterhouse said. “When you get to 50 years or older, it gets riskier and riskier.”

Waterhouse said after reading the analysis that he was most surprised at the sweetness of the champagne, most of which came from the French champagne houses of Veuve-Cliquot Ponsardin and Heisdeck, and was traveling to markets in Russia or Northern Germany when the ship sank sometime between 1832 and 1838.

The sugar content of the Baltic champagne reached an incredible 15 percent, compared to current champagnes that only contain between 1 percent and 3 percent. Contemporary dessert wines, such as Sauternes or “ice wines” only average about 10 percent sugar, Waterhouse said. The chemical analysis also revealed the winemakers used high levels of concentrated grape juice to sweeten the champagne, rather than cane sugar. The alcohol content was around 9 percent, compared to current levels of 13 percent.

Despite the sticky sweetness, a lack of bubbles and some odd metallic compounds, Waterhouse still pines for a glass of the 19th century champagne.

“It would be a wonderful experience to taste something that old,” he said.

In 2012, 11 bottles of the Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin from Baltic shipwreck sold at auction for $156,000.

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