A Baltic Love Story: The Intrigue of 170-year-old Shipwrecked Champagne

The internet is bursting with news of champagne: the BBC1, Fox2, NBC3, Discovery News4, Science5, Nature6, Popular Science7, Smithsonian Magazine8 (who published the most complete summary I’ve seen), and many more are all bubbling with excitement over the discovery of 170-year-old champagne bottles shipwrecked in the Baltic Sea.  Granted, the discovery itself dates back to 2010, but has been brought to the attention of the masses as a result of an article published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS)9. I had the pleasure to be a coauthor on this paper, and am thus that much more thrilled to see the media excitement surrounding its publication. But my attention is particularly piqued by the manner in which the science journalists and the twittersphere are talking about the article, as it gives a clear view of what the public finds most interesting about the discovery.  This public perception of science is always a topic of interest to me, but here I have the particular privilege of being an insider, and thus comparing the public reaction to that of the scientists who worked on the paper.

Such a discovery, of 168 bottles of label-less champagne bottles dating from the first half of the 19th century, is one that intrigues and excites.  The article begins in language uncharacteristically enthusiastic for a scientific article: “Discovering ancient objects from excavation sites or simply at the back of a cellar has always piqued human interest because of the messages from the past they may contain. Unsurprisingly, our interest increases even more when exhuming old bottles or even jars that seem to have contained grapes or wine, giving a glimpse into the little-known history of winemaking.” Clearly (and I can attest to this), the scientists were intrigued by this project for reasons that go beyond the scientific value of the study – here is a case where one of the fundamental motivations for a research project is simple curiosity and wonderment. This is, after all, one of the most essential wonders of wine itself – its ability to transport us in time and place, whether that be to the year of its production, a memory of a candlelit evening where a particular wine was first tasted, or to the vineyard itself. So this study does lend itself particularly well to popular interest, and indeed, the public has weighed in, expressing their curiosity as to what such an old champagne, aged in such particular conditions must taste like.

The study includes, of course, a sensory analysis, and thus can answer this most pressing question that the media poses. At first whiff (known as the “first nose” in French, smelled before swirling the glass and thus oxygenating the wine), the expert sensory panel remarked odors resembling cheese, animal notes, and wet hair or fur, none of which are particularly surprising given the oxygen deprived environment that these champagnes were aged in (during normal storage, a small amount of oxygen, does diffuse through the cork over long periods of time, but underwater, it was, in fact, the carbon dioxide responsible for champagne’s signature bubbles that diffused out of the bottles, leaving behind a ‘flat’ champagne with only a bit of tingly, prickly sensation in the mouth). After swirling a bit to expose the wine to oxygen, the predominant aromas shifted to far more appetizing “grilled, spicy, smoky, and leathery” as well as the more expected floral and fruit notes. All of these sensory impressions were corroborated by the detection of corresponding aroma molecules using advanced chemical analysis methods.

Despite the inherent intrigue of the champagnes’ organoleptic profile, the paper’s discussion goes far beyond sensory analysis, delving into the domain of “archaeochemistry,” or the use of chemical evidence to unravel the archaeological mysteries of this shipwrecked champagne found in the Baltic Sea. Evidence such as the content of sugar, alcohol, metal ions, salts, and wood-derived compounds were all analyzed with an eye to reconstructing of the methods employed in making these wines, and these results even give insight into the viticultural practices and the probable intended destination of the bottles. This careful detective work is of great interest to the chemically-, enologically-, historically- or archaeologically-minded, but it appears that the question of these wines taste remains the issue that most profoundly captivates the public.

1 http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-32388123

2 http://www.foxnews.com/science/2015/04/22/170-year-old-champagne-recovered-from-bottom-sea/

3 http://www.nbcnews.com/science/weird-science/shipwrecks-170-year-old-veuve-clicquot-reveals-champagne-history-n345176

4 http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/shipwrecked-champagne-leathery-still-pretty-good-150420.htm

5 http://news.sciencemag.org/chemistry/2015/04/what-does-170-year-old-champagne-taste

6 http://www.nature.com/news/cheesy-metallic-sweet-170-year-old-champagne-is-clue-to-winemaking-s-past-1.17361

7 http://www.popsci.com/popping-cork-170-year-old-shipwrecked-champagne

8 http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/170-year-old-champagne-recovered-and-tasted-baltic-shipwreck-180955050/

9 A PDF of the original article is available here on the University of Reims’ website.

Italy’s Sparkling Star

(Contadi Castaldi Satèn in traditional Franciacorta flute)

Franciacorta, much like France’s Champagne and Spain’s Cava, is Italy’s home to bottle refermented sparkling wines.  The region began to gain importance around the 1960s, being granted DOC status in 1967 (and DOCG status in 1995), though there is evidence of sparkling wine production in the area long before.  The area is geographically protected by Lake Iseo to the north and Mount Orfano to the south, giving the region a comparably cool climate good for the production of chardonnay, pinot nero (pinot noir), and pinot blanc grapes to be used for Franciacorta wine (*nb that the name Franciacorta implies this sparkling, methode champenoise wine).

(Lake Iseo, so important to Franciacorta’s unique climactic zone)

I spent the day at Contadi Castaldi, Franciacorta’s third largest producer, famous for its Satèn – a blanc de blancs (made only from chardonnay and/or pinot blanc grapes) variety of Franciacorta that must be smoother, more silky and elegant, with a maximum of 4 atm, rather than 6 atm for standard Franciacorta, of pressure, meaning that the bubbles are also softer and gentler.

Contadi Castaldi produces six Franciacorta wines.  A non-vintage brut, and non-vintage rose, both intended to be readily drinkable, approachable wines, and both certainly achieve this goal.  Next up in the line is their vintage satèn – again a softer, smoother, blanc de blancs, and then a vintage rose, a bit more complex and structured than the nonvintage rose, as this one is produced from 65% pinot noir and 35% chardonnay, rather than the inverse for the nonvintage.  They also produce Zero, a dryer Franciacorta with no residual sugar added in the dosage (for a refresher on the terms and processes used in this method of sparkling wine production, see my earlier post on champagne production), resulting in a slightly edgier wine, better to drink with food than some of the sweeter bruts.  Finally, their top tier wine is the gorgeous Soul satèn, produced in the same manner as the vintage satèn, but with particularly selected, highest quality grapes.  This is indeed a gorgeous wine, as external relations director Claudia Spada put it, a “wine of meditation.”

(Bottles of Franciacorta aging on the lees – note the crown caps that are used during this phase of production)

(The waste left over after disgorging – crown caps with the plastic ‘thimbles’ which catch the lees after remuage or riddling moves them into the top of the bottle – I wish I could have captured the potent odor of old yeast that accompanied this scene!)

(Scene from the labeling line)

(Samples of each lot of bottled wine during secondary fermentation with manometers that measure the amount of pressure inside in order to monitor   COproduction in the bottle)

(After disgorging of demi bottles of Franciacorta Zero)

(Gyropalatte – the machine used for mechanical remuage, turning, shifting, and moving the bottles in a particular pattern every few hours so that the lees are completely moved into the cap after only a few days, rather than several weeks for remuage by hand)


Epernay is the known as the showcase town of Champagne, a town highly concentrated with some of the biggest names in champagne.  Epernay is located in the heart of the Champagne region which grows exclusively Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay – the three grapes used to make champagne.  I visited three champagne houses, each giving a very different experience than the others.  I started at Champagne Achille Princier, where the tour is comprised of a video introducing the region (and very informative, if slightly dated) followed by a self-guided tour of the caves.  The cave tour also included a mini-museum of old winemaking apparati, including a hand-powered pump – would not want to have worked the harvest when these were used!  After the tour was, of course, the tasting, where I tried their regular Brut (the driest of the three types of champagne – with Sec and demi-sec being increasingly sweet – this sweetness is actually determined at the very end of the production process, by the amount of sugar – none in the case of a Brut – added to the bottle after the lees are removed* – this final dosage of sugar is known as the liqueur de dosage), rosé, and their Cuvée Grand Art, which is made only of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Next I went to Moët et Chandon, a huge contrast to the much smaller, family-run company of Achille Princier.  The lobby was like that of a 5-star hotel (and the price of the visit reflected this grandeur), and the video that they showed at the beginning of their tour was narrated by their “ambassador,” Scarlett Johansson.  I found the tour a bit comically contrived, but despite sounding a bit like a tape recorder when going through her script, the guide was actually quite knowledgable, informing me (upon questioning) that while they use only wild yeasts for the first fermentation, the Moët et Chandon laboratory produces its own strains of yeasts for the second fermentation, which I found amazing –I would absolutely love to visit this laboratory and have vowed to myself to search for contacts who can get me an in (if you know anyone, let me know!).

Their underground cave spans 28 km and 3 floors, and the older parts were hand-carved in the limestone earth, while the newer portions are a combination of limestone and brick.

Each section is identified with a secret code that tells the vintage, parcel it comes from, etc, that only the winemakers know.

Finally, I did a tasting at Didier Lefèvre.  I arrived for my scheduled appointment, and opened the door to see three men sitting around a table drinking champagne.  One of the men stood and introduced himself to me as Didier Lefèvre, which came as quite a shock after having just been at what felt like the corporate headquarters for liquid luxury.  I sat and chatted for a while with M. Lefèvre and the other two men, who turned out to be longterm friends as well as clients, and we tasted a few flutes of his traditional brut and his rosé.  I learned a lot at this visit as well, in a very different manner than I had via my formal tours at the previous two venues.  For instance, I learned that the region has gone through some huge transformations in the past 50 years, as it used to be quite a poor region (with the exception of the big producers, of course), as most of the big champagne houses bought their grapes from growers who did not have a lot of economic power.  Due to political changes in the wake of WWII, however, the laws were changed in order to give the growers more control, and even the ability to produce their own champagnes, which entirely changed the region.  Today it is said that someone with even 1 hectare of vineyard can become extremely wealthy with very little work, and someone with only ½ hectare of vineyard can be very well off if they are willing to put some work into it.  All of this has also changed the champagne itself, as it is starting to be produced more with grapes from a smaller number of plots (as opposed to being a blen of potentially hundreds of different plots when giant producers are buying grapes from all over the region), which has influenced the concept of terroir in champagne.

*A quick breakdown of the champagne making process will help to clarify this:

1. Juice is fermented as usual in stainless steel or wood to produce a non-sparkling base wine (this wine also undergoes malo-lactic fermentation before step 2).

2.  These base wines are blended (each champagne can consist of wines from between 3 and 50 different batches, specially combined in order to produce a consistently high quality product) and put into bottles with a small amount of additional yeast and sugar.

3.  The yeast eat this additional sugar and convert it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, producing the characteristic bubbles that are trapped in the bottle because it is sealed with a metal cap (like a beer bottle cap).

4.  The wines are stored horizontally on their lees (in the bottle) for a minimum of 15 months (or a minimum of 3 years for “vintage” champagnes, which means that they are made only with wine from a single vintage, whereas non-vintage champagnes are a combination of about 3 years worth of wines – this is why you only occasionally find a year on champagne bottles).

5.  The technique known as “riddling” is used to slowly elevate the bottles from a horizontal to a vertical position, turning the bottles ¼ turn at a time (this used to be done by hand but now is usually done by machine) to get the lees (known as “sediment” in the champagne world) all into the neck of the bottle.

6.  The sediment is removed by freezing the neck of the bottle at -25°C, and then when the cap is removed the pressure in the bottle shoots out the frozen sediment pellet.

7.  The “liqueur de dosage,” which consists of champagne wine that never underwent the second fermentation (i.e. is not sparkling) and sugar, is added to replace the lost wine from step 6.  The amount of sugar in this mixture depends on the desired final sweetness of the champagne – Brut champagnes having no sugar added to them.