Shipwrecks are represented in media as rare and sunken treasures, tombs of a time forgotten. However, in all of human history, there are estimated to have been about 3 million shipwrecks. That’s three million vessels sitting on the ocean floor and we have discovered and explored less than 1% (30,000) of them.
30,000 may seem like a small number, but considering the enormous challenges facing underwater archaeologists in even locating them, we start to get a picture of the issues involved. The Titanic, for example, took 70 years to find and it was a well-documented and famous vessel. A great many other ships have sunk beneath the waves with barely any record.
It makes it all the more incredible then that even after hundreds of years, some things can endure, preserved in hulls of long sunken ships, waiting to be re-discovered. Silks, pottery, weaponry, and gold have all made an appearance as some of the numerous salvaged items from shipwrecks, but one of the most surprising and unique finds that rises from the depths is wine.
The idea of a message in a bottle is ubiquitous to us, a way of linking disparate people across the world. Shipwrecked wine carries not only a message from another place, but also from another time.
In 2010, a team of divers uncovered a treasure trove of wine off the coast of Hamburg, Germany. They’d been stowed in a rattan basket and were cover in mud, almost indistinguishable from the murky water that surrounded them. There were fourteen bottles altogether and while the ship itself was too deteriorated to be analysed, the wines themselves were thought to be from as early as 1670. They’d survived 130ft down on the seafloor for over 300 years.Underwater archaeologist exploring the wreckage
These wines were tested by scientists and found to be a full-bodied, strong red wine, most likely a Bordeaux. Two of the wines were valued by Christie’s at between $32,942 and $38,010 in 2019, but the actual sale price remains undisclosed.
While drinking a 350-year-old shipwreck wine might sound like something one does while wandering the halls of their dark gothic castle, looked down on by ageing family paintings while reading a historic tome, the wines are more of a talking piece.
A great many wines simply aren’t meant to be aged and will go off, developing an overpoweringly sour, vinegary taste. While Christie’s wine is unlikely to cause you any harm, Christie’s London Wine Specialist, Charles Foley warns that “its drinkability is questionable.”
If you’re looking for a wine that you can drink after its long stint in the depths, you’d be better off looking for champagne. Again in 2010, another team working in the Baltic Sea pulled up 168 bottles of champagne that are thought to be 185 years old today. The haul included Veuve Clicquot, Heidsieck, and Juglar, the latter of which hasn’t been made since 1829.
Unlike the wine, the champagne was not only drinkable but pleasant, according to the sommeliers. The champagne and sparkling wines were praised not only for their freshness but delicate balance of acidity and sweetness, as well as underlying notes of coffee and honey. Figures conflict as to the exact price these bottles sold for, but one of the bottles of Veuve Clicquot sold for €15,000 ($16,836).
How these wines and champagnes are still drinkable after hundreds of years in the ocean depths may seem startling at first, until we consider what wine needs to thrive and mature.
To simplify a complex process, the main things that affect how a wine will age once bottled are exposure to oxygen, sunlight, and temperature. Too much or too little of any one can ruin even wine from the best vineyards. In fact, three separate bottles aged differently will have noticeable different tastes after even a short time.
Now, there’s a lot of debate surrounding the ideal temperature to store wine, but 55F (12.7C) is the generally accepted temperature for a great deal of wine. Looking at a temperature map of the world’s oceans, we can see that this is actually a relatively rare temperature. You’re most likely to find it in northern Spain, the Baltic Sea, the west coast of France and into the English Channel and perhaps on the northernmost shores of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as northern China, Korea, and Japan, the US’ East Coast. While this might sound like a lot of places, when taking into account historic shipping routes, the prospects for finding sunken wine becomes less and less plausible.Traditional cellar ageing
Secondly, there’s oxygen and sunlight to consider. Naturally, the deeper the wine falls, the better protected against these it is, but it’s a delicate balance. Fall too far and it’s out of reach, don’t fall far enough and it risks being exposed to the elements and tossed by the seas. This is, of course, assuming that the ocean water doesn’t slowly seep into the bottle over the centuries, as it has frequently been found to do, or that the pressure of the ocean doesn’t force the cork into the bottle and flood it immediately.
Suddenly it begins to become clear as to why drinkable shipwrecked wine is so prized. Even if only one-tenth of the 3 million ships that have gone down contained wine as they sank, of those 300,000 only a few would have the fortunate to sink in the perfect place that we might one day sample their world.
Or maybe not if some companies have their way. Ageing wine underwater is becoming popular in numerous parts of the world, including California, Croatia, and northern Spain. The wineries responsible have experimented with ageing their wine at varying depths, but the usual appears to be 65ft (20m).
That remains the only usual thing about this process though. Many innovations had to be made to ensure that rather than a stroke of good fortune keeping the wines safe, the environment could be somewhat controlled. Areas are carefully selected for temperature, specialist corks were developed to keep the pressure at bay, and only the strongest, most flavourful grapes were used since it was found that they developed best in underwater conditions. Cages were also developed in order to make it easier to retrieve them from the algae, coral, oysters, and starfish that have been known to accumulate on the bottles.
When done right, time spent in the water can age the wines beautifully according to those that have tasted them, making them superior to their land-based cousins from the same harvest. Some put this down to the conditions, paying particular attention to the gentle movements of the water in aiding the progress.
Others, however, disagree and say that the wine is indistinguishable from its land-based counterpart, and only the knowledge of it being from under the waves influence’s people palettes on the matter. The wine also costs between 30% — 70% more due to the cost of production and equipment needed.Amphora vessels discovered that would traditionally contain wine
Regardless of your opinion on it, underwater wine remains a growing industry. A great many of its pioneers profess a love of shipwrecks and sunken treasure when talking about their inspiration to start underwater wineries. The most notable to date is none other than Veuve Clicquot. In a bold move that would’ve made Veuve Clicquot herself proud, the company launched the Cellar in the Sea in 2014 after sampling the recovered champagnes in 2010.
350 bottles of numerous vintages were lowered into the Baltic Sea and will be analysed periodically over their forty-year rest below the waves. Even today we are still discovering new ways to enjoy our favourite drinks as we continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in winemaking. Rarely do we see history so directly shaping the future.