Friday, November 26, 2010

Booty: Shipwrecked Champagne

Back in July I posted about the 30 odd bottles of champagne found amid the wreckage of a merchant vessel which sank in the Baltic some two hundred years ago. The bottles in question were in tact and their contents apparently undisturbed. The divers, who were also archaeologists, even opened one of the bottles to sample its still tasty if less-than-fizzy champagne.

The official opening of these as yet undated bottles occurred in Finland – the country that now owns the wreck – earlier this month to great fanfare. Select sommeliers and champagne specialists were invited to taste from two of the bottles; one a Veuve Clicquot and the other from the now defunct house of Juglar. Louise Nordstrom was among those on the short list of tasters. You can find her article about the experience

The vessel which carried the elegant cargo was originally thought to have gone down some time in the 1780s but the champagne has changed that estimate. The bottles of Veuve Clicquot have distinctive corks that date them definitively to no earlier than 1811. It was then that the winery, located in Champagne, began putting a picture of a famous comet that passed over the region in that year on its corks. The comet “… was rumored to be the cause of a harvest of remarkable quality”. Based on this, experts now estimate that the champagne and the vessel on which it sailed probably went down in the icy Baltic off the Aland Islands some time in the 1820s.

According to champagne expert Richard Juhlin, who had the pleasure of sampling both the Juglar and the Veuve Clicquot, the bubbly was:

Great! Wonderful! What strikes you the most is that it’s such and intense arome. It’s so different from anything you’ve tasted before.

Aside from having only a minor amount of effervescence, probably due to changes in pressure when the bottles first sank and then were brought back to the surface, and a dark yellow color, the big difference between these early 19th century champagnes and our modern beverage would be sweetness. As Ms. Nordstrom notes:

A standard bottle of champagne now has about 9 grams of sugar, said Stephane Gaerschel, a spokesman for Veuve Clicquot, founded in 1772. In the 1830s, the house used more than 100 grams of sugar per bottle.

For most of us the taste would probably be a little syrupy. For the experts, however, both bottles of shipwrecked champagne gave up a veritable pantry of flavors: lime peel, coffee, chanterelles, linden blossom, peach, orange and honey to name a few. Ms. Nordstrom, who sampled the Juglar, detected yeast, honey and manure. She excused herself by ending her article with this insight:

And about that hint of manure? It doesn’t necessarily put me among the philistines. Sommeliers do find whiffs of cat bee in some French wines.

I’ll stick to the Michel-Schlumberger and Korbel,

Header: The Widow Clicquot, matriarch of the house of Veuve Clicquot


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! It is pretty cool that the champagne has helped them re-evaluate the age of the wreck. And to be fair, Veuve Clicquot is one of our favorite champagnes, albeit one for special occaisions since it's a little pricey for just a weekend... just saying.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It is. That's how research work, though. Different disciplines cross over to help each other out.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Good reading! Thank you. Good point that Timmy brought up, and interesting to see how the various disciplines can work together to achieve greater understanding.

Reminded me of stories of modern explorers coming across supply depots of earlier Arctic explorers [Parry?] and being able to consume some of the tinned beef which had been frozen for a century or so, apparently without ill effect.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles. That's one of the reasons geeks like me get such a thrill from research. But that might be a little too much eating 100 year old beef. Might just throw that stuff at the dogs, myself.