Scientists have analysed samples of 170-year-old Champagne which was recovered from a shipwreck on the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
The wine was produced by the French Champagne houses Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Heidsieck, which still produce the wine today, and the defunct producer Juglar.
The research gives new insights into winemaking in the mid-19th century. The composition is similar to Champagne made today, although it had a much higher sugar content – in some cases six to seven times the sugar content of Coca-Cola.
“After 170 years of deep-sea ageing in close-to-perfect conditions, these sleeping Champagne bottles awoke to tell us a chapter of the story of winemaking,” the researchers wrote in the study.
The study was led by Philippe Jeandet, a professor of food biochemistry at the University of Reims, Champagne-Ardenne in France.
Unexpectedly, “we found that the chemical composition of this 170-year-old Champagne … was very similar to the composition of modern Champagne,” Jeandet told Live Science. However, there were a few notable differences, “especially with regard to the sugar content of the wine,” he said.
This high sugar content was characteristic of people’s tastes at the time, the researchers said. In fact, in 19th-century Russia, it was common for people to add sugar to their wine at dinner, Jeandet added.
“This is why Madame Clicquot decided to create a specific Champagne with about 300 grams of sugar per litre,” which is about six to seven times the sugar content of Coca-Cola, he said.
In addition, the Champagne contained higher concentrations of certain minerals — including iron, copper and table salt (sodium chloride) — than modern wines.
The wine likely contained high levels of iron because 19th-century winemakers used vessels that contained metal, the researchers said. The high copper levels likely came from the use of copper sulfate as an anti-fungal agent sprayed on the grapes — the beginnings of what later became known as the “Bordeaux mixture”.
Although one of the bottles from the shipwreck was contaminated by seawater, this is probably not the reason for the wine’s high salt content. Rather, it’s more likely it came from the sodium-chloride-containing gelatin used to stabilise the wine, Jeandet said.
As for taste, wine experts described the aged Champagne as “grilled, spicy, smoky and leathery, together with fruity and floral notes”.
The researchers said the remarkable condition of the wine was thanks to perfect “storage” under the sea. At a depth of more than 50 metres, it is dark and a constant, low temperature — “perfect slow-ageing conditions for good evolution of wine,” Jeandet said.
And if you’re want to try some yourself, you will need around 30,000 euros ($33,000), the record price one of the bottles fetched at auction in 2011.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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