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Shiver me timbers! Shipwrecked wine makes shore

Recent discoveries of two shipwreck sites in the waters of Europe have thrown up relics of the continent’s winemaking past.

The first discovery was 30 bottles of Champagne in the Baltic dating from between 1782 and 1788 and the second was of four shipwrecks off the Italian island of Zannone filled with clay amphorae; tentatively dated between the first century BC to seventh century AD.

The Champagne was unearthed by diver Christian Ekstrom, near the Åaland Islands between Finland and Sweden at the beginning of July.

He took one to the surface and tasted it with his colleagues. His tasting note, according to Reuters, was “fantastic”.

“It had a very sweet taste, you could taste oak and it had a very strong tobacco smell. And there were very small bubbles,” he said.

The shape of the bottles indicates they were produced in the 18th century and have apparently been linked with Maison Clicquot (the famous Madame Clicquot did not marry into the family until 1798 and was not widowed until 1805) due to the cork design, which features an anchor.

The bottles have been sent to France for analysis. If found to be drinkable it will be the oldest such Champagne in the world, a title currently held by an 1825 Perrier-Jouët.

Swedish Champagne expert Richard Juhlin estimates that each bottle could fetch 500,000 Swedish kronor at auction or £45,000.

A number of factors will have kept the bottles in a drinkable state. Firstly the dark and cold conditions on the seabed; at a constant 4° centigrade and secondly the levels of sugar added to the drink in the 18th century which regularly reached 200 grams per litre particularly if the intended market was Imperial Russia.

At a depth of 55 metres the pressure in the bottles remains unchanged and will have prevented both seepage and salt water from entering.

Finally the sediment, to this day still key to both the second fermentation and maturation of Champagne, was not disgorged until the mid-19th century, incidentally a process invented by Madame Veuve Clicquot.

Meanwhile the second find this month was of four Roman trading vessels all with complete cargoes near the Pontine Islands off Italy’s western coast.

The wrecks were discovered by the archaeological section of the Italian culture ministry and Aurora Trust a US seabed exploration company.

At a depth of 165m the ships have lain undisturbed by trawlers. Nonetheless, the 18 metres long wooden structures have been completely eaten away by marine organisms leaving only the cargo intact.

It is thought that at one time they would have contained wine, olive oil, and a pungent fish paste the Romans enjoyed from Spain, North Africa and Italy.

As the small fleet is the second to have been found in the area in recent years, the island group is believed to have been used as a staging post for trade fleets sailing to and from Roman ports.

As Italy has signed a new UNESCO agreement they are obliged to leave the wrecks as they are, although further dives are permitted for archaeological purposes.

This may leave the finds vulnerable to treasure hunters but there is unlikely to be anything left beyond seawater to drink in any of the jars.

Rupert Millar, 28.07.2010

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