Here's what science found in a 170-year-old bottle of champagne

A diver with one of the champagnes found submerged after 170 years off Finland’s Aland Islands. Photo:

If you’re looking for the perfect wine cellar, you may like to try the bottom of the Baltic Sea off Finland.

Five years ago, around 170 bottles of champagne were salvaged from a shipwreck in waters 50 metres deep off Finland’s Aland Islands, an archipelago in the Baltic Sea.

Research revealed the champagnes came from Veuve-Clicquot, Piper-Heidsieck and Juglar, a champagne house that disappeared around 1829, becoming Jacquesson in 1832, making them some of the world’s oldest champagnes. The Clicquot was dated from 1841-50 and there was speculation it may have been tried by the widow Clicquot herself.

Remarkably, a constant temperature of around 4°C, combined darkness and the high sugar content helped preserve the wine, with more than 60 of the bottles still drinkable.

A sommelier on the islands who sampled the first bottle that was brought up said it had the aroma of “mature fruit, with yellow raisin tones and a considerable hint of tobacco” and “the flavour of oak cask storage” alongside surprising freshness and “clear acidity backing up its sweetness”

Eleven of the bottles went up for auction, with the Veuve Clicquot champagne fetching an incredible 30,000 euros ($AU42,000), setting a new world record. That works out at around $7000 a glass. The Juglar went for 24,000 euros ($AU33,000).

Now science has intervened, with Philippe Jeandet from the University of Reims, Champagne, leading a team that unveiled the secrets of 19th century winemaking, as well as pondering whether storing wine in the ocean is a good idea.

The details are revealed in the study “Chemical messages in 170-year-old champagne bottles from the Baltic Sea: Revealing tastes from the past,” published in the scientific journal PNAS today. The researchers looked at the sugar levels in the wine 150g/L to conclude that the sweeter style implies they were bound for German markets, rather than Russia, as many assumed.

Compared with modern champagnes, the Baltic samples contained less alcohol but more iron, copper, sodium, and chlorine, which provided hints into winemaking practices in the 19th century. Other chemical traces suggest vinification occurred in wooden barrels, while another compound pointed to the likely use of grape syrup, an ingredient uncommon in modern champagnes, for liquor preparation.

Low levels of acetic acid suggested that the wines were largely unspoiled.

Analysing the aromas aligned science with the wine wine-tasting experts, whose sensory descriptors such as “spicy,” “grilled,” and “leathery” matched detected compounds.

Jeandet and his colleagues concluded that “the merits of marine environments with still waters at stable temperatures for wine preservation warrant further study”, which gives a whole new meaning to sinking a few cold ones.

It was not the first time champagne has been discovered in a wreck off the islands and the government moved swiftly to protect all future sites from champagne-loving salvage divers.

If you wanted to try a similar champagne, Melbourne restaurant No. 8 by John Lawson has just a couple of bottles of the 1907 Heidsieck & Co. Monopole ‘Gout Americain’ left on its list. The champagne spent just 82 years on the ocean floor after the schooner Jonkoping was sunk by a German sub off the coast of Finland in 1916. The ship and 2500 bottles of bubbly were retrieved in good nick in 1998. It’s on the Crown restaurant’s winelist for $13,200.

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