In investigating a Baltic Sea shipwreck in 2010, researchers came across a stunning discovery: Bottles upon bottles of champagne. Dated to between 1830 and 1840, the boozy cargo sat untouched until a group of French scientists succumbed to that most human of inquiries – what does this stuff taste like, and can we drink it? In a study published in PNAS, a chemical analysis (along with analog tastings) revealed 19th-century bubbly tastes very different from modern versions, and not in a good way.
As for the bottles’ provenance, determining that was actually the easy part: Markings on the corks allowed experts to trace the champagne back to their makers, many of which we still know and enjoy today – Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Heidsieck, Juglar and others. In identifying organic spectroscopy-based nontargeted metabolomics and metallomics, the researchers found a few surprises. The wine registered low for acetic acid (a marker for spoiled wine), indicating that the dark, still, cold seafloor is a very good place to store champagne bottles.
They also found high levels of iron and copper. The iron indicates that the champagne was fermented in wooden barrels fastened with iron nails, while the copper is likely the result of copper sulfate, a preservative used at the time to ward of fungal infections in grape vines. Wooden barrel fermentation is less efficient than modern techniques, which is why the champagne was found to be only 9% alcohol by volume. Modern wine and champagne clocks in at anywhere from 12% to 14% alcohol by volume. The champagne also contained much higher levels of residual sugar than most wines today, owing to sweeter preferences of the time. Nuclear magnetic resonance indicates that grape syrup was most likely used to sweeten the finished product.
While chemical analysis is invaluable, it only tells one side of the story – how does it taste to an actual human? Initial impressions weren’t promising. The champagne had lost most of its carbonation to the sea, as cork isn’t a particularly efficient sealing method (modern screw tops are both more secure and cost-effective). The tasters’ first aromatic observations included terms like “animal notes,” “wet hair” and “cheesy” – not exactly a ringing endorsement.
A few swirls of the glass, however, introduced oxygen to the champagne, of which it had been deprived for over a century. From there, things improved significantly. Later tasting notes described the champagne as empyreumatic, grilled, spicy, smoky and leathery, and tasters picked up on fruity and floral notes as well.
“Spicy” and “leathery” certainly aren’t used to describe most modern sparkling wines, but they’re familiar terms, especially in describing today’s bolder reds and whites. Would you be willing to try 19th-century champagne?