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.

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WAC 2014 Recap Series : The complexity of complexity

Complexity. Such power wrapped up in a single word. Describing a wine as complex effectively puts a big red flag on a wine review, signaling to readers a level of quality and sophistication that cannot be indicated by any other single term.

To add a bit of philosophy to the WAC 2014 mix, Professor Barry C. Smith, director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses (CenSes) at the University of London’s Institute of Philosophy, and author of Questions of Taste, presented his ideas on this often-elusive concept.

Smith asks what, exactly, we refer to when we speak of complexity. He breaks it down into two components : perceptual complexity and hedonic complexity.

Perceptual complexity is multifaceted in itself.  What sensory phenomena are we coding for when we use the word complex?  How is complexity manifested from a sensorial perspective?  First, complexity could be a result of a multisensory experience – an engagement of multiple senses simultaneously.  This, however, seems only somewhat relevant in a wine, as all wines are going to stimulate the same senses (though the setting in which a wine is tasted could certainly play a role here, as discussed in another post in this series). It turns out that the perception of complexity is not correlated with the number of components, but it is rather a sense of harmony and balance that counts.  This is not surprising – anyone who has tasted a wine where the oak is poorly integrated can attest to this.   It is not simply the sum of a multitude of component flavors that will render a wine memorable.  No, wine-derived pleasure lies is the integration of these components – the “greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts” phenomenon. Part of the “magic formula” of wine complexity could be related to the dynamic quality of the sensory experience. The order in which a series of components are perceived has an influence on our impression of complexity, so it is possible that the nature of the components in creating a sense of balance is less important than the order these components are presented in.

This idea of balance brings to mind a concept that I recently learned about in reading an old NYTimes Mag piece about junk food.  “Sensory-specific satiety.”  This is the basis for the recipes in products such as Coca-cola and Doritos, that a balance of flavors causes us to want to eat more.  The phenomenon results from the fact that dominating flavors cause our brains send out signals of satiety, but a delicate balance where no individual flavor stands out is able to fly below our brains’ radar, allowing us to continue eating ad infinitum. It seems logical that the same concept would apply to wines, and that a proper balance where no aroma or flavor monopolizes the mix keeps our interest piqued, positively influencing our perception of quality.

The second aspect of complexity, according to Smith, is hedonic complexity.  A non-complex wine might be likable, but only a complex wine is capable of arousing our emotions. The enhanced pleasure of this experience may be linked to the presence, in small doses, of what is otherwise a highly unpleasant aroma. We don’t yet know how much of this is simply a matter of certain compounds that are perceived differently at different concentrations (take the compound sotolon as an example – in low concentrations it smells of caramel or maple syrup, but at higher doses it gives you the impression that someone sprinkled curry powder directly in your glass) and how much is due to the power of contrast.  But in any case, the power of small doses of certain aromas and flavors to change the entire profile of a wine is a hugely important consideration in blending.  This is why many wines contain miniscule percentages of different varieties.  It may seem like 3% of Cabernet Franc would have no impact in that Bordeaux you’re drinking, but it’s a bit like adding a pinch of salt – a little bit of certain flavors helps to bring out and enhance others in a way not yet entirely explainable by either wine chemists or sensory scientists.

Who knew that complexity was so…well… complex ?  It takes the mind of a philosopher to wrap your head around it.

WAC 2014 Recap Series : Sensory science, in its own right

            Sensory science is one of the most delicate areas of wine science, as the sensory mechanisms are only beginning to be understood, and questions of subjectivity abound.

At WAC 2014, Wendy Parr of Lincoln University in New Zealand launched the sensory session with a provocative introduction. She asserted that sensory science takes on two major identities in wine science, first as a sort of “nexus” linking culture, psychology, oenology and viticulture, where it plays a “collaborative” or supplementary role in projects aiming to understand the effects of different winemaking or grape growing practices. The second face of sensory science is as a discipline in its own right.  A discipline based in psychology that “makes the role of the perceiver explicit.” When seen in this way, she argues, sensory science can allow for the integration of psychological phenomena to understand individual differences between tasters or the impact of context – the order the wines are presented, the background noise in a room, even the mood of the taster herself when evaluating a wine.  In the collaborative approach of sensory science, these individual and contextual variables are seen as sources of error, and thus researches strive to “eliminate” and “control” them at all costs.  Costs that, in some cases, can be extreme, resulting in conditions so far removed from reality that the study results are near-meaningless in the real world. Thus more research in the second sense, with sensory science being done for the sake of sensory science, could help us to understand physiological differences between individuals and the impact of contextual factors, which ultimately might make our wine science more relevant.

Anthony Saliba of Charles Sturt University in Australia, a self-proclaimed “wine psychologist”, picked up on this theme of contextual and individual factors, elucidating the nature of these sources of “error” with a series of examples.  He discussed how humans are much more influencible than we tend to think. This influence could come from within, with physiological phenomena, or from the exterior – contextual cues that change our perception without us even realizing it.

For example, individual variation in sensory thresholds (the minimum concentration of a substance for it to be perceptible) is a physiological constant – humans cannot be trained to smell a substance at a concentration lower than their individual threshold level.  Optical and auditory illusions, such as a musical scale that seems to continuously go up or down, demonstrate the fallibility of our senses.  Yet it is these same senses, limited by physiological factors, that hold us so tightly at their mercy.

Continuing with the theme of sensory tricks, neuroscientist Gil Morrot from the University of Montpellier described a study in which the best sommeliers of France were able to blindly identify the region of origin of Bordeaux or Burgundy wines in only about 50% of cases. If even these experts can be tricked, clearly our physiological limitations are inhibitory. Moreover, he discussed the important influence of wine color on our perception.  Our descriptions and differentiations of wines are principally based on a color-based dichotomy, but we know that we can so easily trick tasters into mixing up red and white wines when they can’t see the color. It turns out that unlike sight or hearing, which each activate a specific region of the brain, olfaction causes a global activation – activating parts of the brain normally responsible for the other senses.  Thus we cannot smell properly without seeing, explaining the close link between color and sensory perception in wines.

All this taken into account strongly supports Wendy Parr’s call for sensory science to be practiced as a “real” science in its own right. The understanding of such sensory phenomena can allow us to delve deeper into our sensory studies, hopefully developing methods that can take into account individual variation and contextual influences, rather than simply eliminating them. Thus we can begin to foster a more holistic approach to sensory science, rather than cutting out factors that could turn out to be detrimental to the applicability of the results.