by Tim Atkin

Rasputin and underwater wines

What is it about the Baltic and champagne? Last week’s high profile discovery of a cache of bubbly aboard a shipwreck is not the first time fizz has been found on a Nordic sea bed. In 1998, treasure hunters recovered 3,000 bottles from a Swedish ketch sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Finland during the First World War.

The thing that makes this cargo rarer and potentially much more valuable is its reported age. The 1907 Heidsieck Monopole champagne raised from the Jonkoping 12 years ago looks positively adolescent compared with the pre-French Revolutionary Veuve Clicquot that the divers claimed to have uncorked on the deck of their boat last week. Their leader, Christian Ekström, described the wine as “fantastic…it had a very sweet taste, you could taste oak and it had a very strong tobacco smell.” Sounds delicious, does it not?

How have the bottles survived for more than 230 years? The answer is that the bottom of the ocean — dark, cold and constant in temperature — is a good, if inaccessible, place to store wine. Two years ago, Louis Roederer did a trial ageing some of its champagnes, including super pricey Cristal, in the bay of Mont Saint-Michel. The results were positive, especially for its non-vintage wine, Brut Premier.

The experiment was partly a publicity stunt, as well as a way of raising money for a French homeless charity called Les Restos du Coeur. Otherwise, why go to the trouble of shipping good champagne to Brittany when you can leave it to mature in your own cool cellars, where champagne has been successfully aged for centuries?

Stored properly, champagne stays fresh because of its combination of bubbles and pronounced acidity. Most champagnes develop added complexity in bottle, even supermarket own-labels, but the better the wine (and the higher the percentage of chardonnay, which is more acidic than pinot noir and pinot meunier) the better it ages. Perhaps not for 230 years, but certainly for a decade or more.

When they are looking for wines to lay down, most people choose reds — particularly the tannin-rich wines of Bordeaux and northern Italy — but some whites age just as well if they are made from naturally acidic grapes. Some of the finest old wines I’ve ever drunk were rieslings from Germany and chenin blancs from the Loire Valley, eminently capable of matching a red Pauillac or St Emilion for longevity.

The style that ages better than any other is also made from white grapes (sercial, verdelho, bual and malvasia) in its most rarefied form. I’m talking about Madeira, a wine which endures with Rasputin-like tenacity, thanks to fearsome levels of acidity and the way in which it is made. Baked and deliberately oxidised in cask, good Madeira is almost indestructible. I had an 1863 Boal once and it was positively perky.

There’s a nautical link here, too. Producers changed the way they made their wine in the 17th century, artificially heating it in “estufas”, after Dutch merchants travelling to India reported that Madeira tasted better after a long sea voyage across the tropics than it did in Funchal, its port of origin. If anyone ever finds a shipwreck with Madeira on board, my hunch is that, just like that Baltic bubbly, it’ll taste fantastic.


2009 Tesco Finest Tingleup Riesling, Great Southern (£8.49, 12%)
An Aussie wine that tastes as refreshing as it sounds, this zesty, elegant, off-dry riesling will develop toasty aromas as it matures in bottle.

2008 Château Gaudrelle Vouvray (£9.80, 13%, Haynes, Hanson & Clark, 0207 584 7927,
If you’re prepared to wait that long, this pithy, rich, almost tropically fruity chenin will still be drinking well a decade from now, but is wonderful now.

2006 Château Grand Faurie Larose, St Emilion Grand Cru (£14.99, 12.5%, Majestic)
Undeniably on the young side, this great value merlot-based claret is cedary, poised and fresh with fine tannins and impressive balance.

2007 Taste the Difference Amarone (£15.03, 14.5%, Sainsbury’s)
A big, bold, strapping Veronese red, with sweet and savoury flavours from dried grapes, muscular tannins and a smoky finish.

Henriques & Henriques 15-Year-Old Verdlho, Madeira (£19.99, 20%, Waitrose)
One of the drier forms of Madeira and a wine that is still youthful and vigorous: nutty, figgy and bracingly acidic. Keeps for ever, even when opened.

2004 Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Champagne (£30.99, 12%, Waitrose)
A stellar champagne made entirely from chardonnay, this is bright, elegant and lightly toasty with a hint of brioche, tangy acidity and tiny, tapering bubbles.

Originally published in The Times

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