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.

When a river runs through it… it sparkles?

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Saumur, located right on the Loire River, is a city in France known for its horses (the Cadre Noir is based at the National Riding School in Saumur, along the lines of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna) and its wine.  Saumur-Champigny is (amongst connaisseurs, at least), one of the better known appellations of the Loire Valley, but Saumur is also home to a large number of sparkling wine houses, most notably making wines in the appellations of Crémant de Loire and Saumur Brut.   

At Bouvet-Ladubay we were lucky enough to have a course on how to taste sparkling wines, with the well-known regional enology consultant Jean-Michel Monnier.  The specificity of sparkling wines require special treatment to fully appreciate them in a ‘professional’ style tasting (otherwise, please, I beg you, just keep enjoying your champagne like you always have! that’s the point, right?).

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We discussed different types of glasses and their merits (those shown above, and these newer models are definitively the best), and the very real importance (for once) of specific glasses because champagne flutes are laser-treated to create little imperfections in the bottom on which the bubbles can form!

Swirl? Nope, for once there’s no need since the bubbles carry with them all the volatile aroma molecules as they rise in your glass and then release them at the surface.

DSC_0680(here we see the sometimes-disasterous effects of the enormous pressure build-up inside a bottle of bubbly.  the bottle in the center of this storage rack at Langlois-Chateau during the aging process)

DSC_0667(View from vineyards of Langlois-Chateau – with city of Saumur and its Chateau in the background)

In sparkling wine the most important aromas to watch out for are the primary aromas, coming from the fruit and the terroir – so fruityness, herbacity, floral, minerality (I really should make a vow not to employ this term until I find a satisfying working definition, but here it is).  The secondary aromas come from fermentation (that’s why they’re considered secondary – its an added layer to what the grapes supply on their own), and are expressed by yeasty, brioche-y, nutty, buttery, lactic aromas.  Finally, there is even a tertiary bouquet, which comes from the aging of these wines (either in barrel [initial fermentation], or in bottle on the lees and later in the final bottle – see the process for making champagne outlined here) – oaky, toasty or vanilla aromas from the wood, or more subdued, complex versions of the secondary fermentation aromas (coming here from the autolysis of the yeast cells after fermentation has finished).

DSC_0660(Langlois-Chateau)

 

DSC_0658(Langlois-Chateau)