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By John Salvi
AN AMAZING DISCOVERY AND A NEW WORLD RECORD
It has always been incredibly exciting to taste a very old wine and to drink history, let alone a wine that is almost 200 years old and a Champagne into the bargain. Who would ever have thought that a Champagne could last so long? It is even more exciting and amazing when the Champagne in question has been recovered from a wreck, a ship that foundered and sank around 1850, and is found the have the vast majority of its corks still intact after spending 160 or more years at the bottom of the sea. It was momentous enough for me to fly to the London Wine Fair, where the bottle was on show, in a glass case, at the APCOR stand, the Portuguese Cork Association, flanked by two impressive security guards.
The bottles, there were 168 of them in total, have a fascinating history. The ship, which cannot be traced in any registry, the foundering of which there is no record and therefore no known precise date, was lying some 50 metres deep, in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of the southern part of the Äland Archipelago, between Stockholm and Helsinki. Äland is an autonomous region of Finland, a demilitarised Swedish speaking region with a right of self-government secured through international guarantees. The Äland islands form an archipelago in the Baltic Sea, consisting of more than 6,700 islands and skerries. The population is 28,000. When they discovered the shipwreck and the bottles lying horizontal and seemingly wrapped in straw, diver Anders Näsman and his team bought up the first bottle on 6th June 2010. Sommelier Ella Grûssner Cromwell-Morgan was the first to taste it. 20 or so more bottles were brought up to examine. News of the find was formally published on 16th July 2010.
The bottle itself was a very beautiful example of old hand-blown, heavyweight glass of a grey-green colour, ridged and mottled and with a very deep punt, quite different from Champagne bottles today.
The Champagne has been identified as coming from 3 Champagne Houses – Veuve Cliquot, Heidsieck and Juglar (long defunct). The Veuve Cliquot was identified positively by the stamp of a comet on the cork, which they put there to commemorate a comet that crossed over Champagne in 1811.
Although tasting notes differ radically, which is hardly surprising for such an unusual wine, the few of us who have tasted it, and these include the acknowledged, world-renowned experts François Hautekeur of Veuve Cliquot and Richard Juhlin, agree that the bottle tasted was intense golden yellow, with grey-brown reflections and was sweet with notes of honey. There was to all intents and purposes no fizz, but the wine was deemed still ALIVE. All were quick to say that the same might not be true of other bottles
I have already said amazing and the word is strong, but it truly is, and the most amazing thing about it is the corks. They had lost the metal cap and wire, which had simply rusted away, but the cork itself, bulbous as it has always been, was still firmly in the bottle and doing its job of obturation. The ullage in the bottle at the Fair was only 8 millimetres. From the technical information contained later in this article it is clear that this cannot have happened under the sea because of the inward pressure of the sea water. The wine in the bottle that I saw must certainly have already been quite old and in that condition when loaded onto the ship. The corks must have been marvellous to last so long and Carlos Jesus of Amorim says “it is a tribute to the lasting qualities of natural cork”
Careful and meticulous preparations were made and a while later the whole remaining cargo was uplifted. The gravest danger was that the corks would come out as soon as the bottles were brought to the surface and there was no more outside pressure on them. When the first batch of some 20 bottles was brought up, a team was waiting on board the ship to recork them immediately. They were put straight into a cold container in the dark to mimic conditions under the sea, and recorking started at once. The bottle necks with the corks were conditioned so that the depression from+5 bars to surface pressure did not cause leakage (frozen). Recorking sounds a simple operation, but in fact was very far from simple and called for great skill, knowledge and expertise. It was a job for professionals. The bottles were very old and fragile and putting a modern Champagne cork in with a modern machine would have blown the necks apart. The job was given to Amorim, a member of Apcor and the largest cork producers not only in Portugal but in the world. They made corks especially for these bottles, gauging to a hair’s-breadth the size of them and therefore the pressure that they would exert upon the necks of the bottles. But this was not enough! Modern corking machinery is much too powerful for such delicate glass, and after both reflection and research Amorim found that the solution was to use a museum piece – an old hand-operated and very simple machine that corked one bottle at a time by the gentle pull of a lever. After all the cork was the vital element. Without successful recorking all was lost.
The recorked bottles were then moved to a safe and secret location, which was also 50 metres under the sea. 145 in all were recorked, only 13 having been deemed invalid.
How is it that these bottles lasted so long? There are 4 technical reasons that seem logical and probable. On the seabed, 50 metres below the sea, time almost stands still:
1. Temperature. At 60° north of the equator and 50 metres under the surface the ambient temperature is about 4°C and constant. This is about 10°C lower than the best Champagne cellars. Also the light is very low, almost black. Low temperature slows all chemical processes in the wine and each 10°C lower halves the rate of these processes and thus of ageing. This means that a 180-year old Champagne would have aged by about 80-90 years only under these conditions.
2. Pressure. At 50 metres below the water pressure around the bottle would be almost equivalent to the pressure inside a modern champagne bottle, probably rather more than a mature one. This means that the pressure outside would be pushing the cork to stay in more than the pressure inside would be pushing it to get out. This explains why the corks were still firmly in and this obturation slows development. Also there would be no oxygen outside in the sea trying to get in and speed things up. However the corks had to have been of prime quality.
3. Darkness. As mentioned above it was very dark down there. Light carries energy, which initiates chemical reactions and thus maturation. Another slowdown!
4. Noise. No noise or vibration is perfect for long, slow maturing.
An auction was arranged and took place on 3rd June 2011, in Marihamn, in the Alandica Culture and Conference Centre. The sellers were the Government of Äland, the owners of the Champagne, and the auctioneers Acker Merrall and Condit of the USA. Two bottles were auctioned. An 1841 Veuve Cliquot and a Juglar of similar but uncertain date. 600 people attended and on-line and telephone calls poured in. Amazingly the Juglar almost beat the world record at 24,000 Euros, but the Cliquot did so at 30,000 Euros ($43,630). This just beat the previous world record of $84,700 (for 2 bottles of Dom Perignon Rosé 1959). Hardly surprisingly the Äland Government were overjoyed and the auction made world news.
The buyer, to the surprise of many, was JULIA SHERSTYUK, 35 years old and Russian, owner of the Buyan Russian Haute Cuisine and Caviar Bar in Duxton Hill, Singapore. She remained anonymous during the sale. She also bought the Juglar. She said “our restaurant is not only about food, it is also about wine and culture. We were told that the shipwreck might have been heading for the Russian Imperial Court of the Tsar Nicholas 2 at Saint Petersburg. That was our link to Wine, Russia and Culture”. It is clear therefore why she was prepared to pay so much for both pure scarcity and history value, especially as it was also thought that the Veuve Cliquot might have been made by the Veuve (widow) herself, Madame Barbe Nicole Cliquot. The famous USA Champagne collector, Robert A. Rosania was outbid, but said “I will be back, there are many more bottles”. The restaurant has a wine museum with an 1821 Château Chalon, Vin Jaune, an 1854 Lafite and a 1907 Heidsieck Champagne on sale in the restaurant for $88,888.
I have said amazing several times, which is unusual for me. The auctioneers called it “one of the most historic and exhilarating events in the world of wine”. 3 things are TRULY amazing. The discovery and salvaging of such old bottles still with the corks intact from such a wreck, the highly skilful recorking of such fragile bottles with specially made corks and a museum piece corking machine and the quite unbelievable world record price paid by the patriotic Sherstyuk for the 1841 Veuve Cliquot, a bottle that she believes ought to have been drunk by the Tsar.
Raine Juslin of the Äland Government says “all monies realised will be used for the benefit of our Baltic Sea environment and environmental measures for improving the water in our sea. A few bottles will be kept for museum purpose and there will be further auctions”. The story is not at an end!
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