Why 170 Year Old Shipwreck Wine Lasted That Long?

170-year-old Champagne Recovered From Shipwreck

Image: 140807-1_Ship Wreck_4 by Tetsuji Sakakibara (license)

The other day I read a Smithsonian article about 168 champagne bottles that were recovered from a shipwreck from the bottom of the Baltic sea in 2010. The bottles were there for about 170 years.

According to the report, the conditions at the shipwreck were ideal (for wine storage, that is): total darkness, a constant temperature about 36 to 39 degrees Fahrenheit and total isolation from the air. The bottle labels had worn off but the brands were still identifiable. Naturally, a group of scientist ran some tests to the wines with obviously, more interests than just enjoying them. They were trying to discover their origins, the wine-making process and whether or not the taste had changed over time.

The tests proved that the wines were drinkable – albeit with much higher sugar contents (understandable since drinkers back then preferred sweeter wine). Initial taste notes were reported as “cheesy”, “wet hair” and “animal notes.” Once the wines opened up though, they turned to taste more like aged champagne: grilled, spicy, smoky and leathery, altogether with fruity and floral notes. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? What I wouldn’t give to have a taste of it… *sigh*

This is the perfect example that when stored under the right conditions, wines with high sugar level can last a really long time, decades even. One key factor here is the sugar content in those wines. Sugar has been used as preservatives for a long time before the invention of refrigeration technology. Let’s say, we put the modern version of these champagnes back to the shipwreck site then recover them 170 year from now, would they taste as fine? May be not as everlasting as their predecessors simply because they are not as sweet.

Does that mean the modern wine cannot be aged then? Not quite true either, since sugar level is just one of the factors to age wine. Some of the well known Bordeaux wines from France are known to get better with aging; for example Chateau Lafit Rothschild. They usually have taste notes of large palate with high tannins – a bit closed. In fact, it is not surprising to find wines of older vintages from these Chateau still taste excellent – one from 1959 comes to mind.

If I am going to buy wine to store for an extended period of time, I will definitely consider one of the varietals that traditionally has higher tannin, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Alternatives to those are dessert wines that have good acidity to provide complexity as they age; for instances: Riesling, Icewine and Sauterne.