Oldest drinkable champagne gets drunk

Two bottles of 200-year-old champagne recovered from a Baltic shipwreck this summer were opened and offered to 100 journalists and experts for a wine tasting. It wasn’t until they opened and recorked them yesterday that experts were able to confirm that there are 2 different labels of champagne: Veuve Clicquot and Juglar, a house that went out of business in the early 1800s.

It has lost most of its fizz, sadly, but retains its sweetness (champagnes at that time used a brain-freeze inducing 100 grams of sugar in each bottle; a bottle of Veuve today has 9 grams of sugar) and the flavor imparted by the oak casks it was kept in before bottling.

Richard Juhlin pours the shipwrecked champagne into glassesAs the contents were poured into rows of waiting glasses, the aroma was more pungent than any modern wine or champagne: a thick, nose-wrinkling bouquet that could be smelled several metres away.

“Bottles kept at the bottom of the sea are better kept than in the finest wine cellars,” one of the world’s foremost champagne experts, Richard Juhlin, told reporters.

Juhlin described the Juglar as “more intense and powerful, mushroomy,” and the Veuve-Clicquot as more like Chardonnay, with notes of “linden blossoms and lime peels”.

“Madame Clicquot herself must have tasted this same batch,” Francois Hautekeur, a Veuve-Clicquot representative, told AFP, referring to Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who reigned over the famous house.

Madame Clicquot with her granddaughter, by Léon Cogniet, ca. 1860The Widow (“Veuve”, in French) Clicquot actively sought to expand the market for her champagne in royal courts all over Europe, particularly the Russian Imperial court. The bottles may have been on their way to Russia, or they could have just been on their way to nearby Finland.

When the shipwreck was first discovered, there was speculation that the champagne was a gift from Louis XVI to Catherine the Great, but that no longer seems likely. There are plates on board made by the Rorstrand porcelain factory between 1780 and 1830, and the twin-masted schooner that was carrying them when it met a grim fate at the hands of the remorseless Baltic was probably made toward the end of that date range.

So the precious cargo remains in the running for the title of world’s oldest champagne, but the race has tightened considerably since the current record-holder is an 1825 Perrier-Jouet. Only 3 or 4 of the 168 bottled recovered from the wreck are Veuve, but they are probably the oldest from that label since currently the oldest bottle the house knows of dates to 1893.

The government of Aaland, the autonomous Finnish archipelago in whose waters the wreck was found, plans to auction off two bottles, one from each label. They’re also planning on mixing some of the shiprecked champagne that is not in mint condition with younger vintages and sell them which sounds a little gross to me, frankly, but blending not-so-great vintage and modern is apparently a common practice.

Aaland will keep five bottles unopened, unblended and unsold as archaeological artifacts, which the Finnish government isn’t too thrilled about — they would prefer that the entire cargo be treated as archaeological patrimony to be preserved — but Aaland is keen on its autonomy and this discovery has caused a lot of excitement and discussion in the community.

As for the beer, another possible oldest drinkable record-holder found in the wreck, its being analyzed right now with an eye to allowing local microbreweries to recreate it, perhaps using the shipwrecked beer as a root.

As it happens, Christian Ekstroem, the diver who discovered the shipwreck, is also the manager of the pub of Stallhagen, a local microbrewery. He’s gunning for the brewing rights to remain local rather than sold to US brewers, who are also vying for them.

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