Updated: May 31
How hidden treasure has inspired a maritime revolution in wine maturation.
In the depths of the Baltic Sea, divers have struck liquid gold, igniting a new age of cellaring for wine producers. A search of many now famous shipwrecks yielded cases of immaculately preserved champagne, some dating back to approximately 1825. The finds have inspired a number of Maisons to push the boundaries in the way in which they cellar their wines, venturing beyond the realms of their dark, chalk caves.
- 1998 The Jönköping Discovery
The 1907 vintage Heidsieck Monopole Goût Américain had been in a watery tomb in the depths of the Baltic Sea for eight-two years when it was unearthed by a Swedish expedition in 1998.
The Jönköping had set sail from Gävle, Sweden in October 1916, destined for Saint Petersburg to supply the Imperial Army with three thousand bottles of the vintage champagne as well as cognac and ammunition, when a German U-22 submarine discovered it. The German officers marked the cargo as contraband and the Jönköping was sentenced to be sunk with the 1907 vintage still in the cargo hold.
Due to the perfect pressure and temperature deep in the Baltic sea, many of the original 3,000 Champagne bottles made it safely through this 90-year transcendence of time, with corks intact and no leakage.
After selling at auction, bottles can now be found either in personal collection or at prestigious fine restaurants like Atlas in Singapore selling at a staggering price of US$150,000.
- 2010 The Åland Archipelago Discovery
In the summer of 2010, while exploring a shipwreck off the Finnish Aland archipelago in the Baltic Sea, a 170-year-old bottle of champagne was recovered. The bottle was identified as Veuve Clicquot and was dated back to approximately 1841. It fetched an auction price of 30,000 Euros, setting a new world record. The bottle was sold to an anonymous bidder from Singapore.
As told by Philippe Jeandet, professor of food biochemistry at the University of Reims, Champagne, "we found that the chemical composition of this 170-year-old champagne was very similar to the composition of modern champagne".
Another 168 bottles of mostly unidentified bubbly were also recovered from the same wreck. Apart from the Veuve Clicquot, there were five bottles of fizz which were produced by a Champagne house, Juglar, which closed its doors in 1829 and was bought by Jacquesson. The champagnes were very much alive and remarkably fresh. They were sweet in style, with a bright golden colour and honeyed and toast aromas. The Juglar bottles were sold for 24,000 Euros a piece.
- 1994 William Salthouse Shipwreck Discovery
In 1994, Heritage Victoria commenced a conservation project to excavate the William Salthouse Shipwreck. The William Salthouse was the first merchant vessel to sail with cargo from the British Dominion of Canada to British Colony of Melbourne in Australia. The entrance to the Port Philip bay is where the boat struck a reef off Point Nepean and sank on 28th November 1841.
According to the outgoing cargo, the ship was carry 360 bottles of champagne, Sauternes and Muscat. The archaeological discovery showed approximately 47% of the corks stamped with the letters AY in a circle. The House of Gosset was one of them as during the mid-nineteenth century, Gosset was the only house in the world to use the name AY as an identifying mark on the bottle. The house claimed their antique bottle and later described it as the 'William Salthouse' style of bottle and is still used by them for their cuvees.
The Emergence of "Underwater Cellars"
After these recent discoveries, a few champagne houses decided to take wine cellaring to another level. The bottles recovered in 2010 from the 1841 discovery were still fresh and vibrant. The dark and cool sea managed to preserve these bottles in what researchers describe as 'close to perfect' conditions for ageing champagne.
The temperature under the sea was constant (between 2-4ºC) during day and night all throughout the year, and the bottles were submerged in full darkness. In addition to that, there was a presence of higher minerality and bubbles in the bottles discovered in the shipwreck. These conditions were similar to the conditions of the chalk cellars of the region, which are carved into an ancient seabed. This practice is particularly suited to champagne because of the pressure, and when still wine is submerged corks are often forced into the bottles by the underwater pressure.
Bottles are also placed at "depths beyond limits of human free diving, which means there is no risk of theft" says Amphoris, offshore operation specialists who have been working with various wineries since 2014.
Four years later, Maison Veuve Clicquot submerged some 350 bottles in the Baltic sea to be retrieved and analysed 50 years later. These bottles were placed inside the "Åland Vault", before being plunged 40m below the surface of the sea. The first bottles intended for the "Cellar in the Sea" program were submerged on June 18. 2014 and other houses were fast to follow suit. These include Champagne Drappier, Frerejean Frères, M. Hostomme, André Chemin, André Heucq and Leclerc-Briant.
Michael Drappier stated that 'perfect conditions were achieved under the sea' which helped to slow down the ageing, similar to cooking by poaching instead of pan-frying. The purpose behind this ageing was to find the perfect environment to achieve complexity and texture when the champagne was compared to one traditionally cellar aged.
A limited number of bottles of the Carte d'Or Brut NV, Brut Nature Zéro Dosage NV and Grande Sendrée Brut 2009 were submerged off the bay of Saint-Malo in Brittany for 3 years.
Bottles with higher dosage showed more marked divergent flavour profiles and textures compared to their counterparts.
Carte d'or Brut NV - Bottles with a dosage of 6g/litre, were affected the most by undersea ageing. A nose verging more towards toast and bread than the fresher aromas that were expected. Released in twin pack for €90 in 2017
Grande Sendrée Brut 2008 - Bottles with a dosage of 4g/litre, also showed the influence of underwater ageing. It greatly benefited from its full body, which presented the nose with an increased complexity of mushroom, earth, and truffle aromas. Released in twin pack for €190 in 2017
M. Hostomme 2009 Vikka Grand Cru
M. Hostomme Blanc de Blancs Champagne is covered with splotches of dried mud and broken chips of blue wax. The rusted wire cage and prematurely darkened cork only add to this bubbly’s mystique from the deep. With only 750 bottles made, this Grand Cru Brut has spent a whole year of its maturation submerged 200 ft. of water off the coast of remote island of Ouessant. Before secretly submerging it underwater to avoid theft of course, the 100% Chardonnay, and extremely limited release, spent 10 years on lees after fermentation in stainless-steel tanks and Burgundy French oak barrels. The name Vikka means "traveller" in Old Norse, and is a tribute to the scandinavian roots of the House of Hostomme.
Number of bottles: 750 bottles and 30 magnums
Price: 165 € and 395 €
'Abyss' was one of the first champagnes aged under the sea by the pioneer in biodynamic viticulture in Champagne: Leclerc Briant and their brilliant Cellar Master: Hervé Jestin. Being a great believer in bioenergetics Jestin knew that the ocean with its constant and gentle state of dynamic energy, transfers positive energy to the champagne which in turn benefits its maturation cycle.
These champagnes originated from the 2013 harvest and 20,000 bottles of this cuvée were placed in cages and submerged in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of northern France. They were aged on lees for three years in the cellars in Épernay and disgorged in March 2017 with no addition of dosage and then aged under the ocean for 12 months. The result had an ethereal quality to it, with an effusive texture, freshness and minerality.
Number of bottles: 20,000
Price: 135 €