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.

Wine science takes on the Chesapeake

I have just landed on home soil. Coming back to my roots, my terroir, to deepen and round out the research project I’m working on at the University of Burgundy.  I have come to spend two weeks at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, with our collaborator Michael Gonsior.

2014-05-07 10.12.42

They grow wine in the Chesapeake?  Actually its possible… I’ll have to find out (in any case this weekend I’ll be spending some time in another surprising wine region, at Galer Estate in western Pennsylvania).  But that’s not the reason I’m here.  I am here to work with environmental chemists, to learn their methods, typically applied to marine water or other environmental samples, and apply them to wine.  This collaboration started a couple of years ago, Gonsior and my mentor, Régis Gougeon having been introduced by another non-wine collaborator, Phillipe Schmitt-Kopplin (whose lab in Munich I spent three weeks in back in March), and the research looks quite promising.

In brief we are using fluorescence spectroscopy methods to study the global signatures of different wines.  This has been done before (see Airado-Rodrígeuz et al., 2011), but we hope to combine the information gleaned from the “fluo”, as it is affectionately called (at least in French) with our already well-developed metabolomics approach (see Gougeon et al., 2009; Liger-Belair et al., 2009; Roullier-Gall et al., 2014) to gain a more well-rounded view of a wine and the effects of different factors, such as terroir and bottle age (Roullier-Gall et al., 2014), cooperage (Gougeon et al., 2009), or vinification choices. Early results were presented at WAC by Christian Coelho and Chloé Roullier-Gall.


Personally, this experience brings me full circle, in a way, as a major part of my chemistry training took place in an environmental context (my senior thesis, at Haverford College, was carried out in Biogeochemist Helen White’s lab), and I am looking forward to seeing how my project and intentions are received in such an environment, seeing that I work on a very different substrate, with very different stakes and objectives.  This was less of a factor in Munich, as the collaboration is a long-standing one, and several PhD students have already passed through their lab, desensitizing them to what might otherwise seem a strange topic in the context of the “Environmental Health” focus of that particular institute.


Additionally, this puts the study of wine in a new context for me, one that is less bathed in wine than the French context I have been working in. Though in Munich wine is not the beverage of choice either, the lab’s PI (Schmitt-Kopplin) is French, and has a vested personal interested in wine.  In the US, particularly outside of the more longstanding winemaking regions, wine is often viewed quite differently from in the Old World, particularly France, as America does not have the longstanding, deep-rooted history into which the vines and wine issue from them, spread their roots.  I’m looking forward to seeing (and sharing!) how this all plays out during my stay.



Airado-Rodrígeuz, D., Durán-Merás, I., Galeano-Díaz, T., Wold, J. P. Front-face fluorescence spectroscopy: A new tool for control in the wine industry. J. Food Comp. Anal. 2011, 24, 257-264.

Gougeon, R. D.; Lucio, M.; Frommberger, M.; Peyron, D.; Chassagne, D.; Alexandre, H.; Feuillat, F.; Voilley, A.; Cayot, P.; Gebefügi, I.; Hertkorn, N.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. The chemodiversity of wines can reveal a metabologeography expression of cooperage oak wood. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2009, 106, 9174-9179

Liger-Belair, G.; Cilindre, C.; Gougeon, R.; Lucio, M.; Gebefügi, I.; Jeandet, P.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. Unraveling different chemical fingerprints between a champagne wine and its aerosols. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2009, 106, 16545-16549.

Roullier-Gall, C.; Boutegrabet, L.; Gougeon, R. D.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. A grape and wine chemodiversity comparison of different appellations in Burgundy : Vintage vs. terroir effects. Food Chem. 2014, 152,100-107.

WAC 2014 Recap Series: Holistic science? The study of Biodynamics

I’ve often mused about biodynamics (some examples here, here, and here), how it should be interpreted, and how it should be studied.  At WAC, two starkly different takes were presented on how it is being studied : one from the production side, and one from the commercial side.  Both of them focused on a particular factor – quality.  This is often a primary reason cited for converting to biodynamics (BD for short) amongst winemakers, but the scientific world, and many consumers, can have trouble finding any concrete reason that the esoteric practices of BD should have such a positive influence.

Georg Meissner has been studying BD practices since 2005, in what is probably the largest and most in-depth scientific study being conducted on BD (at least in Europe – let me know if there are others in other parts of the world!). He explains the long-term project as taking a “holistic” approach, which, in theory, sounds exactly like what I have often proposed as necessary to understand BD.  If we want to understand this holistic system, we will never succeed with a reductionist approach, as we would inevitably be excluding some of the variables imperative to the functioning of the multidimensional system (if indeed the explanations of BD are correct, and its functioning relies on the synchronization of all parts of the system).

But I’m not sure where we draw the line between “holistic” and simply looking at as many factors and responses as one can possibly think of.  To me, holism implies a sense of unification, a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” element, that we can’t necessarily access simply by looking at all of the variables simultaneously.  There is a missing link, that extra little edge that boosts our sum into a bigger whole, that doesn’t come so easily.  This project does the best that science can do, I believe, looking at the effect of biodynamic preparations (particularly 501), but seemingly not the more abstract aspects of BD, notably the role of the lunar calendar, on a multitude of factors: the soil, the worms residing in it, the vines, diseases, biodiversity, grapes, juice, and wine, and even the copper chloride crystallization (“sensitive crystallization” – a subject often spoken of in the same breath as Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randall Graham, who uses this technique in his marketing materials) patterns resulting from it. The first three years of the study were dedicated to getting an overall picture of how each of these factors is affected by different viticultural systems (BD, organic, and conventional), and since 2010 they have attempted to dive deeper. I fear only that in diving deeper they may lose sight of the holistic picture they are striving to create, in focusing, as science tends to do, on the micro-level details that tend to be seen as disconnected from the greater whole. All of this remains to be seen, but in any case I applaud this team of researchers for their dedication and effort in pursuing a subject not always appreciated in scientific circles, and attempting, within the bounds of the scientific system, to take an approach that remains true(r) to the integrated spirit of biodynamic agriculture.

BDprepsBD Preps at Weingut Hirsch in Autstria 

Giacomo Negro, a Business professor and sociologist at Emory University, presented quite a different approach to studying BD. His work focuses on the consumer perception of BD, and he proposes that BD is a “signal” of high quality.  The work is based on the concept of “collective signals” which are one of the mechanisms by which a consumer can glean information about the products available for purchase. To study this, Negro’s work compares a winery’s scores in two important wine reviews, Wine Spectator and Gault & Milau’s Le Guide des Vins de France to their chosen method of cultivation.  The work looks at a winery’s rating before and after conversion to BD, and finds in general that there is a positive correlation of quality rating, as expressed in the scores, and BD production. He also looks at price, though here I worry that too many confounding factors may be present, as it is generally accepted that BD (and organic) producers incur slightly- to highly-elevated production costs, which can also be linked to higher bottle prices.

Quite clearly a different type of study and thus one that confronts a whole host of different issues, this work also represents a way of thinking about BD.  Can we evaluate its quality (or that of any wine, for that matter) properly by a one-dimensional numeric score?  What other factors play into quality?  Does the story of a wine count as well?  I think, in BD especially, consumers are often inclined to purchase more than simply the bottle’s contents.  Their reasons for buying may have ecological, moral, even borderline spiritual (especially when it comes to BD) undertones, so perhaps further consumer perception studies on BD wines could take aspects of this complexity into account.