Month: April 2015

Champagne From A Shipwreck Still Good After 170 Years

Sometime in the 1840s a two-masted schooner, possibly en route to St. Petersburg (nobody actually knows) sank off the coast of Föglö, an island next to Finland. It was travelling a route known to be used for Champagne deliveries to the Russian Imperial Court.

It lay there undisturbed in the calm, dark waters of the baltic for 170 years. Finally, it was found in 2003 by the Finnish Maritime Administration and explored by a group of Finnish and Swedish divers in 2010. After entering the hull through damage in the stern they found a number of items including 168 bottles of Champagne.

In 2011, a single bottle of this 200 year old Champagne sold at auction in Finland… for £26,700. Surely a bit steep for a bottle of wine thats been at the bottom of the sea for two centuries? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Old bottles of Champagne seem to have a habit of turning up.

At the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin visitor centre in Reims there is an 1893 bottle on display which was found, of all places, in a inside a sideboard in Torosay Castle, Isle of Mull, Scotland, in 2008.

The cargo recovered from the shipwreck included bottles from three of the oldest Champagne makers: Veuve Clicquot, Heidsieck and Juglar. But just how old are these bottles?

Philippe Clicquot-Muiron founded the company that would become Veuve Clicquot in 1772. In 1798, Philippe’s son, François Clicquot, married Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin and died in 1805, leaving his widow (veuve in Frrench) the company. Under this formidable woman Veuve Clicquot became the Champagne power house it is today. Analysis of the corks from the Veuve Clicquot bottles recovered from the wreck show a logo with a comet, apparently added by Madame Clicquot in 1811. This was added to celebrate an unusually good crop, so the bottles recovered could be as old as 204 years.

Florens-Louis Heidsieck founded the Heidsieck Champagne house in 1785 in Reims. Legend has it that he presented wine to Queen Marie-Antoinette. After his death in 1828, his nephew Christian Heidsieck started a partnership with Henri-Guillaume Piper. Christian died in 1835, his widow married Henri-Guillaume Piper in 1838 marking the beginning of the Piper-Heidsieck Champagne house. The Heidseick bottles recovered bear branding from the original company name so they are likely no younger than 177 years old.

The last maker Juglar, is the most interesting in that it ceased to exist in 1829 as it was absorbed into the Champagne House Jacquesson. Juglar bottles were recovered from the wreck meaning that the Champagne is likely somewhere between 186 and 204 years old!

In case you were wondering, the oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, invented in 1531 by Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Carcassonne. This happened, possibly by accident initially, as bottling of the wine was carried out before the initial fermentation had ended.

Scientists from the University of Reims in Champagne-Ardenne, France have now analysed samples of the champagne and were surprised by what they found.

The bottles recovered were remarkably well preserved, 55m down in waters of 2-4 degrees C, high pressure and low levels of light. The aromas and chemical features of the Champagne were preserved and it was drinkable.

The Champagne itself was remarkably similar to modern Champagne, but much sweeter with sugar levels of 14% – more like a modern desert wine. Modern tastes have driven the sugar levels in Champagne far lower than this. The levels of CO2 were vastly lower, 80% less than a modern bottle, probably because most of it had escaped through the cork. Finally, traces of arsenic hint at the use of arsenic salts as a pesticide in use at the time.

All of which goes to explain why these bottles can fetch such a high price at auction. Perfectly drinkable 200 year old Champagne, yours for around £25,000!

Image is of the Mary Camden, a two-masted schooner, by William Pierce Stubbs (1842 – 1909) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sharpshooters Take Aim At Northern Californian Vines

Agriculture inspectors are the ever watchful guardians of the Northern California wine industry, worth $600 million, from a small but deadly adversary.

The glassy-winged sharpshooter is a sap sucking insect just over 1cm long. They are the main carrier of Pierce’s disease, an incurable condition caused by the bacterium, Xylella Fastidiosa, which starves an infected plant of water and nutrients.

Pierce’s disease affects vital economically important crops that grow in the warm climates of North and South America. It affects plants supplying as almonds, blueberries, citrus fruits, coffee, peaches, plums and yes you’ve guessed it, grapes.

Pierce’s disease has a history that is almost as old as the California’s wine industry.

In 1857 the Los Angeles Vineyard Society settled in the Santa Ana Valley. Within 25 years the area was producing over a million gallons of wine annually. Then in 1883 almost all of the vines inexplicably died. For ten years farmers tried unsuccessfully to rejuvenate the industry but to no avail. The Southern Californian wine industry effectively ceased for forty years, finally killed by the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) in 1919.

In 1889 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dispatched Newton B. Pierce, to Santa Ana to determine the cause of the disaster. After extensive research he finally concluded in 1892 that the vines had been killed by an incurable microorganism.

It is only relatively recently that Pierce’s disease, as it came to be known, was more understood and recognised as a threat to vines. However, it took a major outbreak caused by glassy-wing sharpshooters in Temecula in 1999, to galvanise action.

Initially spread by the blue-green sharpshooter, Pierce’s disease is now far more effectively spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter. Introduced accidentally to Southern California in 1989 through imported nursery stock from the southern U.S., the glassy-winged sharpshooter spreads Pierce’s disease with great speed. This insect is a voracious feeder and breeds quickly creating a multitude of offspring.

So great is the threat of the disease and the insects carrying it that the U.S. government has committed more than $60 million to try and defend California’s $3 billion wine industry. Worldwide there is a huge amount of research going into stopping this disease. Researchers in Sao Paolo, Brazil, have even mapped the genome of Xyella Fastidiosa.

This is not just an American problem. Southern Italy reported an outbreak of Pierce’s disease last year and now has more than a million infected olive trees. Vinis Vinifera, the European vine, has no immunity. Research into breeding resistant vines is ongoing.

Pierces disease is costing California over $100 million a year according to the Center for Wine Economics. Northern California, largely free of glassy-winged sharpshooters, is only able to remain so thanks to hard working agricultural inspectors and constant vigilance.

Image by Reyes Garcia III, USDA Agricultural Research Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Champagne Bottle Sizes

Most people have heard of a magnum of champagne, a few a Jeroboam, but what about the other sizes of bottle?

Here goes …

  • Quarter bottle, Split or Piccolo – ‘small’ in Italian – (187.5 or 200 ml) – perfect for one.
  • Half bottle – Demi ‘half’ in French – (375ml)
  • Bottle – Imperial (750ml) The standard size of a bottle of wine or champagne.
  • Magnum (1.5 litres) The equivalent of 2 bottles.
  • Jeroboam (3 litres) The equivalent of 4 bottles. However, it is important to note that “Jeroboam” can indicate different sizes in different regions in France.
  • Rehoboam (4.5 litre) Equal to 6 bottles.
  • Methuselah (6 litre) 8 bottles
  • Salmanazar (9 litre) 12 bottles.
  • Balthazar (12 litre) 16 bottles.
  • Nebuchadnezzar (15 litre) 20 bottles – or around 120 glasses!
  • Melchior (18 litre) 24 bottles.
  • Solomon (25 litre) 33.3 bottles.
  • Sovereign (26.2 litre) – Reportedly created by Taittinger in 1988 to coincide with the launch of the Sovereign of the Seas cruise liner – then the world’s largest cruise liner.
  • Primat (or Goliath, 27 litre) 36 bottles.
  • Melchizedek (or Midas, 30 litre) a whopping 40 bottles!

As can be seen from the above list – many traditional wine bottle sizes are named after Biblical kings and historical figures – presumably to imitate the impressive size of the larger bottles. However, in reality, the larger bottles are difficult to carry, difficult to open and even more difficult to pour.

Still wines can actually benefit from being stored in magnum bottles. Oxidation occurs more slowly and so they age at a slower pace. However, for Champagne a large bottle reduces the effectiveness of the secondary fermentation phase, and so can diminish the quality of the wine. Because of this larger bottles are often filled from standard size bottles prior to serving. Plus, if you happen to be at the end of the queue for a glass – you are likely to find yourself sipping flat champagne. Personally we’d rather preserve the fizz and buy more smaller bottles!

Image is “Veuve clicquot bottle sizes” by Walter Nissen (Wnissen). – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Man’s Best Friend To Keep Vineyards Safe

No, we aren’t talking about guard dogs.

A few years ago whilst waiting in an airport for a flight to Koh Samui, Thailand, we encountered a little cocker spaniel. She ran up to us and started pointing at our hand luggage. Having nothing to hide and feeling slightly bemused we dutifully unpacked our bags. It turned out that the clever dog had smelled the 5,000 Thai Bhat in small bills we were carrying.

Sniffer dogs are wondrous animals; highly trained and able to detect people, explosives, narcotics and even, as we found out, the ink on printed money.

If you thought they couldn’t get any more useful, it seems they will shortly be able to protect vineyards from pests and disease.

Sonja Needs, a researcher at Melbourne University, is training sniffer dogs to detect phylloxera, the scourge of vineyards. This tiny relative of the aphid feeds on the roots of grapevines, sucking the sap from them. The resulting damage leaves the vine susceptible to disease. If you want to know more about phylloxera, read our recent post.

Phylloxera is currently present in Australia in Victoria and New South Wales. The rest of the country has remained unaffected. Dogs capable of sniffing out this pest could be vital in keeping phylloxera from spreading.

Australia puts a lot of resources into wine production. Grafted vines are key to this. North American vines are more resistant to phylloxera. Grape growers can graft their vines onto the rootstock from North American vines to allow them to grow the variety they want whilst reducing the chances of phylloxera taking hold. According to the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia, in 2012 76,000 hectares of vineyards were planted in that state, which is more than double the total amount planted by the whole of New Zealand for the same year. Of those vines planted around a fifth were planted purely for their phylloxera resistant rootstocks – a huge investment in fighting this disease.

Vines under attack from phylloxera often show no noticeable evidence of this above ground. Dogs capable of sniffing out this pest could play a vital role in preventing it spreading. Areas that are cleared of phylloxera can be frequently checked, as can harvesting equipment to ensure the disease is not being accidentally spread. Most of Australia is phylloxera free, and these dogs could keep it that way.

Training a dog for detection is basically a process of getting it to recognise a smell, and then playing increasingly difficult hide and seek games with a reward each time.

With phylloxera, Ms Needs thinks the key will be training the dogs to sniff it out at increasingly deeper depths in the soil, between three and four feet down. Phylloxera is dormant in winter so the ideal scenario would be to detect it when it is not active.

Ms Needs is also helping to give unwanted dogs something to do. Apparently dogs that tend to be hyperactive or difficult to control make excellent sniffer dogs – all they need is a job to do.

So, just in case you needed another reason to appreciate Man’s best friend, thanks to them for working to keep vineyards pest free!

Full story in ABC.

Image is “a nose for fun” by Salem Eames [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How Victorian Botanists Unwittingly Changed European Winemaking Forever

A few select European wines are sold as:

“produced with grapes from ungrafted rootstock”

Ever wondered what that means? Let us tell you!

Vitis Vinifera, the common Europe wine grape, has between 5,000 and 10,000 varietals. Of these, only a few account for nearly all European wine production (we posted about the lack of grape diversity previously).

The current method for growing vines in Europe relies on grafting Vitis Vinifera onto the rootstock of North American vines. A small number of wines are produced using grapes from “ungrafted” vines, but these are usually phenomenally expensive.

Grafting is time consuming and can be difficult. So, why don’t we use ungrafted vines for all European wines?

The short answer is, we can’t.

Grape phylloxera, the scourge of vineyards, makes the use of ungrafted vines impossible almost everywhere in Europe. This tiny relative of the aphid feeds on the roots of grapevines, sucking the sap from them. The resulting damage leaves the vine susceptible to disease.

Grape species native to North America, such as Vitis Labrusca, have developed some resistance to phylloxera. The roots of American vines can secrete a sticky sap that clogs the mouths of phylloxera. If the insect manages to cut into the roots of American vines then once they have moved on the vine can grow a layer of tissue over the wound to prevent bacterial or fungal infection.

North American vines are equipped to defend themselves against phylloxera. However, Vitis Vinifera is not.

French colonists tried to grow Vitis Vinifera in North America in the 16th Century but the vineyards inexplicably failed. Discovering the cause was made all the more difficult by the behaviour of phylloxera. Once the roots have lost a large percentage of sap the pest moves on. Usually, this is before the vine shows any signs of distress. Digging up a dying vine will not likely reveal any of the insects in the roots.

It was subsequently assumed that European vines simply couldn’t be grown in North America. Nobody could understand why.

In the 19th Century it became common practice to import exotic non-native plants into Europe. This was very much a feature of the Victorian era, with Botanists excitedly experimenting with growing plant species gathered from far away places.

With the advent of steamships, crossings of the Atlantic could be carried out in record time. Hence, it is thought that phylloxera began to survive the crossing in the roots of North American vines imported into Europe.

Of course, the inevitable happened, and European wine making was forever changed by what became known as the Great French Wine Blight of the 1850s. That century somewhere between 66% and 90% of all vineyards in Europe were destroyed by the ensuing phylloxera epidemic.

The only known method found to combat phylloxera was proposed by two French wine growers, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, in the 1870s. This technique, namely rootstock grafting, is still in use today. European vines are grafted onto the roots of North American vines. This allows the vines to produce fruit as normal and the roots to have some chance of surviving phylloxera.

A few vineyards did escape the phylloxera epidemic and now produce the only examples of European wines as they were before the epidemic. These ungrafted vines produce grapes which are made into very expensive wines, such as Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises Champagne, and Quinta do Noval’s Nacional Vintage Port.

The debate about whether or not grafted or ungrafted vines produce the best grapes is still ongoing to this day.

Image is “Phylloxera cartoon“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wine Recession

While we’re all familiar with the worldwide financial recession, did you know we’ve also been experiencing a wine recession? Well, fear not, apparently the wine recession is set to end this year.

Back in 2008, consumption of wine peaked at a level of 25 litres per person – the equivalent of 1.61 billion bottles of wine! However, since that time, wine consumption has fallen by around 10.5% per capita.

Vinexpo and the International Wine and Spirits Record have now predicted that wine consumption will start to increase over the next five years. However, consumption is not set to reach the 2008 levels ‘in the foreseeable future’. Instead, a slow recovery over the next 5 years is expected.

Guillaume Deglise, CEO of VINEXPO, says, “We can say confidently that 2015 will show that the UK wine recession is over. While the UK market shed 9.6m cases between 2008 and 2013, it is now past its low point. The UK wine trade is building value and many leading marketers report progress at the premium end”.

It is noteworthy that the outstanding success since 2008 is sparkling wine. A large proportion of that success is down to Prosecco, which has seen a growth of 43% of UK imports. Between 2008 and 2018 UK drinkers are forecast to increase consumption of Prosecco to 2.2 litres per person, per annum.

So let’s raise a glass (of Prosecco) to the end of the wine recession!

Image is “Prosecco sparkling wine” by tracy ducasseFlickr: [1]. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Anyone want to join a wine club?

A new private members’ club is set to open in Pall Mall this summer. But this is not just any private members’ club; this is a wine lover’s paradise.

Set over 3 floors in a Grade II listed former bank, 67 Pall Mall is set to be a “candy shop for wine lovers”. With six sommeliers, hundreds of fine wines by the glass and 5,000 wines by the bottle, wine lovers will have their work cut out choosing where to start. Which is why the wine lists can be perused on iPads. The club also houses a members’ lounge, a wine shop, a wine storage facility and a 12-seater private dining room. Sounds fantastic.

The only downside to enjoying all of this “candy” – the fees. To be a member one has to part company with a one off joining fee of £1,000 (or £500 for those under 27) and the annual membership rate of £1,000. It is said that over 1,000 wine lovers have already joined the club and the remaining 200 places are likely to disappear fast.

If however, you don’t live in London, are aged over 27 and don’t have £1,000 to join and £1,000 per year to stay a member – perhaps you might like to check out our fantastic range of reasonably priced fine wines.

Image is “Wiens Winery” by miheco is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How much wine do I need for a party?

It can be difficult to know how much wine to buy for a party. While you know your guests better than anyone, it can be hard to guess how much people will drink, whether they prefer beer or wine, how long the party will last etc etc.

However, with a few simple rules, it is possible to devise a good estimate.

As a general rule, when offering wine and beer, it’s usual that around 60% of guests will consume wine and 40% beer. Obviously, if your crowd is under 20 or consists of the local rugby team, you may want to buy in more beer than wine.

As to the split between red and white wine, this is very much down to the guests attending. If you do not know people’s preferences then assume a 50/50 split. If you are hosting a summertime party, then more white wine is probably a safe bet (say 60-70% white).

A standard 750ml bottle of wine contains just over 4 small servings (175ml). If however, you are a more generous host (or have rather large wine glasses as we do!) it is more likely that you will only get 3 glasses from a standard bottle. For that extra flourish of style, remember to decant your wine!

As a usual rule, allow 1 drink per guest per hour. If guests are staying overnight or have pre-arranged transportation home you might want to increase this to 2 drinks per hour. If you are hosting a dinner party, bear in mind that people are likely to drink more with food and so allow at least 2 drinks per hour.

Most people will drink less in the afternoon than in the evening, but it is sensible to be generous with your estimate so you don’t run out.

A 750ml bottle of Champagne will usually yield 5 generous flute glass servings. If you are serving a large party all at once (for example, as a toast), you might want to consider buying a larger bottle of champagne – such as a Magnum or Jeroboam. If you intend to serve champagne over the course of a party, we would recommend purchasing multiple standard bottles to retain the bubbles and to avoid waste.

If you would like more information or help choosing wine for a party, please get in touch!

Image is “Wine Bottles” by Anders Henrikson  is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Age wine in 48 hours? You’ve got to be Oaking!

Well, the pun was rubbish, maybe the product is better.

We were surprised to come across an implausible-sounding wine gadget called Oak Bottle. Supposedly in a mere 24-48 hours you can accomplish what takes months or even years with established wine ageing practices.

How can this miracle be accomplished? Oak bottle is, as you might have guessed, a bottle made of oak. The theory goes that instead of leaving your wine in a standard 225 litre oak bottle for a while to age it, simply emptying a cheaper bottle of wine into an Oak Bottle will have the same effect, but in less time. The manufacturers claim that as there is less liquid and more oak, hence a greater surface area for the wine to be in contact with, that the oak maturing process happens more quickly.

Ageing wine in oak barrels has been common practice for wine makers for centuries. Recently we posted about the world’s oldest wine being rehoused for only the third time, and it was well over 500 years old. Oak barrels add flavours of vanilla, spice and impact tannins.They allow wine to interact with oxygen very slowly, often resulting in 10% of the wine in a barrel evaporating over the course of a year.

The top fifty most expensive wines in the world are oak aged. So the prospect of being able to age a cheaper wine and make it taste like a more expensive wine will surely appeal.

It has long been known that smaller barrels affect wine more quickly due to the greater surface area to volume ratio. So perhaps the notion that a 750ml Oak Bottle might be able to age wine in a few days is not so silly after all.

We remain skeptical however. If you fancy experimenting, they are available here. You even have a choice of flavours.

Image is “Wine Barrels” by Sanjay AcharyaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Wine Duty

A couple of weeks ago the Chancellor announced a freeze in the duty payable on wine. But what is Duty on wine?

HM Revenue and Customs state that wine Duty is payable on the production of wine or made-wine of more than 1.2% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Wine is defined as a drink produced by fermentation of fresh grapes or grape must.

Made-wine is any other drink – apart from beer or cider – containing alcohol that is made by fermentation, rather than by distillation or any other process. For example, mead is classed as made-wine.

The amount of Wine Duty payable on wine or made-wine is calculated according to its strength and whether it’s sparkling or still.

So, for example, from 23rd March 2015 the duty on wine or made-wine products with an ABV between 1.2 and 4% would attract duty of £84.21 per hectolitre of product. Whereas, the duty on sparkling wine or made-wine with an ABV between 8.5% and 15% is £350.07 per hectolitre of product. A hectolitre is equal to 100 litres. These rates mean that on some £5 bottles of wine, more than half the cost is made up of tax (duty and VAT).

Last year the ‘escalator’ of predetermined annual increases for alcoholic drinks was scrapped but wine duty still rose with inflation. The freeze this year has been welcomed by the wine industry but according to the ‘Drop the Duty’ campaign, wine has not received a tax cut since 1984. By contrast, duty on spirits and cider were cut by 2% and beer by 1p per pint in the most recent budget. It is also noteworthy, that the UK has the second highest rate of wine duty in the EU, with only Ireland having a higher rate.

However, while not enjoying a cut in duty, the UK’s 30m wine consumers can at least know that they will not pay more duty for a time and at least until well after the general election.

Image is “Freyburg – Weinberg über der Unstrut” by FranzfotoOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.