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