After recovering shipwreck beer that spent 170 years at the bottom of the ocean, scientists concluded that it had a distinctive whiff of goat and overly ripe cheese—delicious. But what about champagne, which can improve with age? Apparently, bottles of the stuff recovered from the same wreckage have a cheesy aroma, married with animal notes. I think I see a pattern emerging.
Alongside this unusual bouquet, scientists discovered that the vintage bubbly was considerably sweeter than what we’re accustomed to today. Furthermore, laboratory analyses revealed that the seabed offers ideal preservation conditions for champagne, and provided us with an intriguing snippet of the history of 19th-century winemaking. The findings have been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The old bottles of tipple were discovered back in 2010 inside a shipwreck at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, close to the Åland Islands. Alongside five bottles of beer, 168 bottles of champers were recovered, some of which were sold for tens of thousands of dollars. Although the labels didn’t survive 170 years in salt water, researchers managed to trace the bottles’ origins to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Heidsieck and Juglar, based on brandings left on the corks.
Unlike the rancid, goaty beer, apparently the champagne still tasted pretty good. After the obligatory tasting session, some samples were brought into the lab in order to scrutinize the chemistry and molecular diversity of the booze, which revealed some fascinating insights into the winemaking process of that time.
In particular, the champagne was extraordinarily sweet, which the scientists speculate was probably due to the addition of grape syrup prior to corking. Some modern day champagne contains no added sugar at all, and the most popular type, brut, will have around 10 grams of sugar per liter added to it. But this stuff contained a toothache-inducing 140 grams of sugar per liter. While that may be far from what we are used to, such staggering amounts of sugar were the norm of that era.
It was originally believed that this boozy booty was destined for Russia, but a bit of digging through historical documents revealed that Russians had a taste for even sweeter wine, which would typically contain a whopping 300 grams of sugar per liter. This led scientists to believe that the cargo may have been headed for Germany instead, where customers enjoyed moderately sweet champagne.
The samples were also found to contain wood tannins, indicating that the fermentation process likely took place inside wooden barrels. Furthermore, they also possessed unusually high levels of iron, which may have come from nails used to make the barrels. But it seems they didn’t have the fermentation process down to an art just yet, as the samples were around 3% less alcoholic than modern counterparts.
While the sensory analysis was originally disappointing, with the scientists describing the champagne as “cheesy” with notes of wet hair and animals, after a few swirls to oxygenate it, the samples apparently became spicy, smoky and fruity. One expert said he could even pick up honey and truffles.
The champagne’s remarkable preservation was due to the seafloor presenting ideal and consistent temperatures of 2-4oC, combined with darkness. Scientists will therefore continue to take samples every few years and compare these with traditionally stored bottles to investigate how pressure and temperature differences affect wine.