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.

The public weighs in on wine science : questions from the ACS Webinar with Susan Ebeler

I just sat in on the ACS Webinar (acswebinars.org or facebook.com/acswebinars) by UC Davis researcher Susan Ebeler on “Wine Science: Designing Wine.  While the content itself was very interesting, most of it was familiar to me as Dr. Ebeler came to give a lecture series to my class in Valencia (as mentioned in this post), what I found particularly fascinating was the stream of questions rolling in from audience members over the course of the hour-long lecture.

The audience consisted of over 1001 participants, from all around the world (Argentina to Poland), and ranged from winemakers to bloggers to researchers to an entire “Chemistry of beer, wine, and bourbon” class.  Thus the questions represent an interesting cross section of what the world wants to know about wine.  What people don’t understand, such as the question wondering if the floral and fruity notes in wine just come from the added flavors, or if there is another source, as well as suggestions that those embedded in the wine world on a day-to-day basis might never have considered.

Dr. Ebeler didn’t have time to respond to most of the questions (something like 180 were posed), but I collected some of the ones that I found particularly intriguing, for one reason or another, whether they were answered or not :

  • “Do you think most of the flavor components in wine have been chemically identified, and can be measured with current GCMS technologies?” – this one Dr. Ebeler was able to get to.  Her response was that we’ve found all the major compounds, and anything else would be trace compounds (such as Rotundone, the compound responsible for the black pepper aromas of syrah) and that finding new compounds will continue to get more difficult as we already have found the ‘easy’ ones.  I don’t disagree with any of what she said here, but I think that it is important to qualify this statement given her description of the complexity of the sensory effects of wine.  Since there is often little correlation between the concentration of a compound and our ability to perceive it, as well as the complex interactions possible between different aromatic and flavor compounds, it is very possible that molecules present in trace quantities could have a significant impact on the perceived flavor, aroma, or even texture of a wine.
  • “I have heard that some people, particularly in Japan, choose their wines based on their GC spectra, what are your thoughts?” – this one she didn’t have time to answer, but I thought it was a particularly interesting comment.  I don’t know if this is indeed the case, though it does ring a bell.  I’d love to know if anyone has more information about this.  If it is true, I think that this is a fascinating use of what most nonscientists would consider a highly complex analytical technique into popular culture, and would really like to know how this came about and the specifics of how it is used.
  • “Has there been any work on transesterification during fermentation, to tailor the finished wine for a specific bouquet?” –   Dr. Ebeler responded that this would likely be too complicated and difficult to target any specific ester, and wasn’t confident that it would be able to reliably give the desired effects.  However, I thought it was a very interesting question, and one that could only come from the mind of a chemist approaching wine from an outside perspective.  I doubt many winemakers or even wine chemists would consider attempting such a reaction on wine, but why not? And ideas like this one, though they may never lead to technological advances in wine, could help us think of processes that already occur in wine in a different light, giving new insight that may lead to new or deepened understanding.
  • “Is there an objective testing mechanism that does not involve subjective human perception?” –  I thought this was a great question to be posed, in terms of how it reflects upon the current scientific paradigm. Why do we feel the need to eliminate ‘subjective human perception’ from the evaluation of a process (tasting wine) that is entirely dependent on human perception, in fact, it IS human perception.  But this is a quest that we are constantly on, how to remove subjectivity from a subjective experience.  This should, I think, cause us to raise our own questions about how science works, where its limits are, and what new approaches/philosophies might be able to help us resolve this quest to understand rigorously a subjective, sensory process.

You can see coverage of the webinar (mostly mine) by checking out #ACSwebinars

For ACS members, the webinar will be available after 1 week at acswebinars.org/wine-design

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