World’s Oldest Champagne Tastes Sweet After 200-Year Shipwreck

The world’s oldest Champagne has been at the bottom of the sea for almost 200 years. It still tastes pretty good.

Two bottles were cracked open today that were discovered in July in a shipwreck, 50 meters (54.7 yards) below the surface, in the waters south of Aaland, a Finnish-controlled archipelago of 6,500 islands in the Baltic sea.

The Aaland authorities only discovered yesterday while recorking some of the bottles that they contained two varieties of Champagne: Veuve Clicquot and Juglar, an old house now part of Jacquesson. While 168 were found, many were broken and others contaminated.

I was one of a group of journalists allowed to try them in the cultural center in Mariehamn, the islands’ only town.

Both are sweet, as was the custom of the time. The Juglar is deep and rich with notes of orange and raisin, like a Christmas cake. The Veuve is lighter and more floral, with layers of complexity. Both may be 185 years old.

The oldest Veuve Clicquot held by the Champagne house dates back to 1893, said Francois Hautekeur, a winemaker with Veuve, who is assisting with preserving the Champagne.

“We were replacing the corks yesterday and I was hoping we might find ours because Madame Clicquot was selling a lot of Champagne in the Baltic at that time,” Hautekeur said in an interview today. “Then I eased out one cork and I saw ‘Reims’ and ‘QUOT’ and I knew. It was the best moment in my professional career, maybe my life.”

Finland Route

The sweetness to the Champagne prompted speculation it might have been headed for Russia. The boat was found in an old shipping lane and Finland is now considered more likely.

While the exact age isn’t yet known, marine archeologists estimate the twin-masted schooner on which the bottles were found is from the second quarter of the 19th century. Plates on board were manufactured by Rorstrand porcelain factory between 1780 and 1830, the Aaland Board of Antiquities says on Aaland’s website. The divers also discovered bottles of what may be the world’s oldest beer.

When one of the Champagne bottles was brought to the surface earlier, the pressure change caused the cork to pop. One diver took a swig from the bottle expecting it to taste of seawater and realized that it was good.

The team drank some from plastic beakers, resealed it and took it to sommelier Ella Grussner Cromwell-Morgan to taste the next day.

Oak Casks

“Despite the fact that it was so amazingly old, there was a freshness to the wine,” she told Aalandstidningen newspaper. “It wasn’t debilitated in any way. Rather, it had a clear acidity which reinforced the sweetness. Finally, a very clear taste of having been stored in oak casks.”

The champagne was so well preserved because it lay horizontally, under pressure, at a low temperature and in the dark.

At the good-humored tasting today, the flash bulbs popped -- the Champagne corks didn't, because a lot of the fizz has gone out of the bottles. After we did the official tasting, a scrum of onlookers joined in because everyone else wanted a sip.

Aaland plans to auction one bottle of each Champagne in coming months and sell others in the future, said Brit Lundberg, the official in charge of education and culture. Five bottles will be retained and others might be used in a special blend of Champagne.

“It’s difficult to estimate what the two bottles will fetch at auction in Mariehamn because they are unique and it depends who is bidding,” Richard Juhlin, a Champagne expert who led the tasting, said in an interview. The bottles may fetch 100,000 euros ($135,000) each, he said.

If he’s right, I have just consumed about 10,000 euros of Champagne in a few minutes. I’m not sure even Keith Richards has managed that.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)