Tuesday, July 20th, 2010
I don’t know who spiked the water the past few days, but here is yet another story about a historical fermented beverage. This time the tipple of choice is 18th century champagne found by divers in a shipwreck 180 feet under the Baltic sea. On July 6th, Swedish divers were exploring off Aaland Island, midway between Sweden and Finland, looking for a sailing vessel they’d encountered earlier when they found the wreck of a small ship just 20 meters (65.6 feet) long.
Visibility was so bad that they couldn’t find the name of the ship or its bell, so the head of the diving team, Christian Ekstroem, grabbed one of 30 bottles slumbering peacefully in the wreck and brought it to the surface, hoping there would be markings on the bottle that could date the ship. Ekstroem never expected that there would be anything of note inside. He assumed the bottles had long since been invaded by seawater.
He was wrong. The corks kept their seal and the cold and dark of the deep Baltic preserved the champagne. Inside the bottle they found champagne, and not just champagne but drinkable champagne, complete with fizz. Ekstroem contacted champagne vintners Moet & Chandon, and they identified it with 98% certainty from the anchor marking on the cork as 18th century Veuve Clicquot.
According to records, Veuve Clicquot was first produced in 1772, but the first bottles were laid down for 10 years.
“So it can’t be before 1782, and it can’t be after 1788-89, when the French Revolution disrupted production,” Ekstroem said.
Aaland wine expert Ella Gruessner Cromwell-Morgan, whom Ekstroem asked to taste the find, said it had not lost its fizz and was “absolutely fabulous”. [...]
Cromwell-Morgan described the champagne as dark golden in colour with a very intense aroma.
“There’s a lot of tobacco, but also grape and white fruits, oak and mead,” she said of the wine’s “nose”.
As for the taste, “it’s really surprising, very sweet but still with some acidity,” the expert added, explaining that champagne of that period was much less dry than today and the fermentation process less controllable.
If the dates pan out, these 30 bottles will be the oldest drinkable champagne in the world. The runner-up is a distant 1825 Perrier-Jouet. But the even more exciting prospect is that this champagne may well be part of a shipment of champagne sent by Louis XVI to the imperial court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg. Veuve Cliquot have a record of a consignment which was sent but never received, and the small ship was the standard vessel used on the St. Petersburg route.
While historians try to pin down the provenance, authorities on Aaland Island will meet to determine who actually owns the wreck. The islands belong to Finland, but they have political autonomy and are culturally Swedish.