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170-year-old champagne bottles found in Baltic Sea reveal taste from past

French scientists have conducted a research on the chemistry of 170-year-old champagne bottles that were found in a shipwreck at the bottom of the Baltic Sea between Finland and Estonia.

The old champagne provided insight into winemaking practices used at the time as the French scientists were able to work out the detailed composition of the wines, revealing chemical characteristics in terms of small ion, sugar, and acid contents. The distinct aroma composition of these ancient champagne samples, first revealed during tasting sessions by the scientists, was later confirmed using state-of-the art aroma analysis techniques.

"After 170 years of deep-sea aging in close-to-perfect conditions, these sleeping Champagne bottles awoke to tell us a chapter of the story of winemaking," the researchers said. "Discovering ancient objects from excavation sites or simply at the back of a cellar has always piqued human interest because of the messages from the past they may contain. Unsurprisingly, our interest increases even more when exhuming old bottles or even jars that seem to have contained grapes or wine, giving a glimpse into the little-known history of winemaking.”

The bottles, believed to contain the oldest champagne to ever have been tasted, were discovered in a shipwreck off the Finnish Åland archipelago in the Baltic Sea in July 2010. The ship was a 21.5 meter long two-masted schooner, around 200 years old and sitting at a depth of about 50 meters. “Total of 168 bottles were found in nearly ideal slow-aging conditions in terms of temperature, 2-4 °C, darkness, low salinity, and high pressure.”

None of the labels remained, but bottles were later identified as champagnes from the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin (VCP), Heidsieck, and Juglar (known as Jacquesson since 1832) champagne houses thanks to branded engravings on the surface of the cork that is in contact with the wine.

By figuring out the chemical consistency of the champagnes, the scientists also tried to find out where the bottles were intended to. “Based on the site of discovery, once could assume that the champagne bottles were en route for the Russian Empire. Indeed, Madame Clicquot did strive to please the Russian taste for sweet wines from as early as 1814. Nevertheless, the frequent correspondence with her agent in Saint Petersburg testifies to the customers’ distinctive request for a very specific sugar dosage of nearly 300 g/L. 'Here they always have some sugar on any table close to their wine glass, for they add sugar not only to red wine but also to champagne'. Thus, the relatively low sugar levels of the shipwrecked bottles, less than 150 g/L, suggest that they might instead have been intended for the customers in the Germanic Confederation.”

But the key question remains: what did it taste like? Well, the experts who sampled the wine first used terms such as “animal notes,” “wet hair,” “reduction,” and sometimes “cheesy" to describe the wine. However, upon swirling the wine in the glass to oxygenate it, the aroma apparently became far more pleasant - "grilled, spicy, smoky and leathery, together with fruity and floral notes."

You can find out more in detail about the scientific findings with regards to Baltic Sea champagne bottles in the web page of National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

Editor: S. Tambur, M. Oll

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