What does 170-year-old Champagne taste like? ‘Spicy, smoky – with fruity and floral notes’

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Champagne from the shipwreck. Pic: Visit Åland
Champagne from the shipwreck. Pic: Visit Åland

Related tags Baltic sea Wine Fermentation

Champagne salvaged from a Finnish shipwreck can offer winemakers new insights into wine conservation, according to researchers. 

Champagne was discovered on a 19th​ century shipwreck in the Finnish archipelago in 2010, and 11 bottles were auctioned off in Finland in 2012 for $156,000. Now, an analysis of the wine has been published, exploring the taste while revealing more about winemaking practices used at the time.

The study looks at this ‘remarkable and unprecedented example’ of wine chemistry. Other projects (from both researchers and winemakers worldwide) are also investigating storing wine underwater.  

‘Close to perfect conditions’

A total of 168 bottles were retrieved from the shipwreck in the Åland archipelago in the Baltic Sea,  from the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Heidsieck, and Juglar champagne houses (Although none of the labels remained, the engravings on the cork were used to identify the producers.)

Researchers say the shipwreck provided ‘close-to-perfect, slow-aging conditions’ with total darkness, a constant temperature of 2–4 °C, and conditions of low salinity (typical of their depth of 50m).

The wine sparked interest when divers tasted them on site. This was followed by tasting sessions then aroma analysis. A study, published this month, compared the shipwrecked bottles with modern products.  

“In addition to the scientific and historical value of the chemical analysis of these ancient samples, there remains also the crucial question of their taste,” ​wrote Philippe Jeandet, one of the authors of the study.

“At first, the Baltic samples were described using terms such as ‘animal notes,’ ‘wet hair,’ ‘reduction,’ and sometimes ‘cheesy.’

Analysis of the wine showed the presence of compounds that contributed to these attributes.

“’Reduction’ and ‘wet hair’ descriptors were to be expected for a wine that had spent such a long time sheltered from any oxygen source, and they were justified by the presence of light sulfurous compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, methanethiol, and dimethyldisulfide.

 “Upon swirling the wine in the glass to oxygenate it, the aroma became far more pleasant, with the main aromas described as empyreumatic, grilled, spicy, smoky, and leathery, together with fruity and floral notes.”

Again, analysis of the wine showed the presence of compounds which contributed to these aromas.

“The ‘fruity’ character of the Baltic champagne samples can unambiguously be attributed to the presence of some ethyl esters of fatty acids (ethyl hexanoate/octanoate), which are the main aroma compounds derived from fermentation in white wines, but also to isoamyl acetate and diethyl succinate, while ethyl dihydrocinnamate, octan-1-ol , and 2-phenylethanol are clearly responsible for the floral notes.

“Cis-oak and trans-oak lactones were also detected, and their presence confirms the use of wooden barrels in the production of the Baltic Sea champagnes.”

Good hygiene

Researchers speculate the wine could have been destined for the Russian Empire or Germanic Confederation. The bottles threw up some surprises about winemaking in the 19th​ century, Jeandet said.

“In today’s context of growing concerns about food safety, wine producers take particular care to ensure that their wines are free of any bacterial contamination, through the use of antimicrobial compounds such as sulfites and good hygiene practices,” ​he said.

“We are often led to believe that hygiene is a modern concept, so it was inspiring to realize that the 170-year-old champagne samples presented very low concentrations of acetic acid, a sign of wine spoilage.

“Acetic acid levels were similar to those found in the modern specimens. Moreover, the concentrations of anions such as SO4 2− were also similar between the Baltic and modern champagnes. These anions are oxidation products of sulfites, and the similar levels attest to the likelihood of microbiological stabilization already being in use in the 19th century.”

Champange is typically kept in cellars at around 10-12°C, whereas the depths of the ocean offered an environment of 2-4°C.

Jeandet told BeverageDaily.com he believes the low temperature is a key factor in the aging of the champagne.

“What was very surprising for people who had the chance to taste the champagne was the fresh aroma, fruity notes – typical of young wine. So probably the aging process was changed according to the very low temperature found at a depth of 50m.

“This is a good approach to try and understand the mechanisms of wine ageing: the role of oxygen, temperature, light and darkness.”

Source: PNAS. Published online before print April 20, 2015. doi:10.1073/pnas.1500783112 

Title: Chemical messages in 170-year-old Champagne bottles from the Baltic Sea: Revealing tastes from the past. 

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