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170-year-old, shipwrecked champagne gets a taste test

A glass of a 200-year-old champagne. (AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND)
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In 2010, a nearly 200-year-old shipwreck in the Baltic Sea yielded 168 bottles of perfectly preserved champagne. Now researchers have paired chemical analyses with expert taste testers to find out just what sort of wine it is. Their results were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Before letting wine experts try the impressively vintage bubbly, the researchers broke down its chemical composition.

It turns out the champagne, which was identified as a product of Veuve Cliquot by engravings on the corks, was sweeter and less alcoholic than modern-day equivalents.

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Smithsonian Magazine reports that a cooler overall climate may be to blame: Grapes wouldn't have matured as much, and distillers wouldn't have gotten as much alcohol from them. They also may have used yeast that was less efficient at fermenting sugar into alcohol. Other chemical variations were caused by differences in the wine-making process that we already knew about. Iron and wood traces were present because wine makers would use containers made out of those materials instead of steel, and copper lingered because it was used as a pest-control agent before modern fungicides were available.

But what's really impressive is the sweetness. With around 140 grams in a bottle, the wine was 14 percent sugar. That's even higher than most modern Moscatos. Not surprising, since wine makers used to add way more sugar syrup at the end than modern consumers prefer, but it is actually pretty important: The champagne's sugar content may hint at the ship's intended destination. From Nature Magazine:

Although the shipwreck’s location might indicate the champagne bottles were on a trade route to the Russian Empire, their sugar levels suggest otherwise. Russians were known to consume champagne with sugar content higher than 300 grams per litre, Jeandet says, but the shipwrecked bottles had less than half that. That suggests they may have been intended for German markets, which favoured moderately sweet wines. By present standards, this would be exceedingly sweet: the most popular style today, brut, uses about 10 grams per litre.

When the researchers let tasting experts try a bottle of the wine, which has been auctioned off for as much as $156,000, the initial reaction was that it was "cheesy," and had notes of "animal" and "wet hair."

So it tasted like a wet dog, apparently. And most of the bubbles were gone. Plus it was unusually creamy when compared with modern champagnes, probably because of the addition of lactic acid during the fermentation process.

But after the wine got some much-needed oxygen, the tasters changed their tune: Now it was a sublime sip with "spicy," "smokey," "grilled" and "leathery" notes. Unlike beer found in the same wreck, which was badly diluted with sea salt, the champagne seems to be in remarkably good shape.

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Lead researcher Philippe Jeandet of the University of Reims, France, was able to take a tiny sip, and he agrees that the wine -- which had been in the cold and dark in the sea -- has aged to perfection. The maker of the wine has even placed more recent products in Baltic Sea so experts can monitor how well they age.

“It was incredible," Jeandet told Smithsonian Magazine. "I have never tasted such a wine in my life. The aroma stayed in my mouth for three or four hours after tasting it.”

Hopefully none of those lingering tastes were of wet hair.

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