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SHIPWRECK

So what does the world’s oldest bubbly taste like?

A team of French scientists has cracked open what they think might be the oldest champagne in the world. The 170-year-old bottles, found in a shipwreck, contain unusually sweet champagne that has taught researchers about centuries-old wine-making techniques.

So what does the world's oldest bubbly taste like?
Photo: Alex Dawson/Government of the Ă…land Islands
The latest analysis of a few of the 168 bottles found in 2010 on the floor of the Baltic Sea shows it was three times sweeter than modern bubbly, and suggests that the cool, dark ocean might make an ideal storage cellar, said the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed US journal.
   
"After 170 years of deep sea aging in close-to-perfect conditions, these sleeping champagne bottles awoke to tell us a chapter of the story of winemaking," said the study, led by French researchers.
   
While the labels were long gone by the time the bottles were discovered, researchers have traced them to well-known champagne-makers Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin (VCP), Heidsieck and Juglar, based on markings on the corks.
   
The bottles contain what is likely the oldest champagne ever tasted.
   
"Possibly the most striking feature of the Baltic champagne samples is their extraordinarily high sugar content," said the study led by Philippe Jeandet, a professor in the Faculty of Sciences, University of Reims.
   
That sweetness may have come from a grape syrup that was added before corking, the study said.
   
The bottles contained about 140 grams of sugar per liter, about triple the amount typically seen in modern times. Often, champagne today contains no added sugar at all.
 
Not for Russia?
 
The sweetness level was high compared to today's taste, but not for the era.
   
Ever since the bottles were discovered deep in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Finland, many have surmised that the shipment was headed to Russia.
   
But correspondence from the era between Madame Clicquot and her agent in Saint Petersburg shows that the Russian market had a preference for very sweet wine, containing 300 grams of sugar per liter.
   
People there liked sweet drinks so much, it was customary for diners to add spoonfuls of sugar to their wine at the table, researchers said.
   
"Thus, the relatively low levels of the shipwrecked bottles, less than 150g/L, suggest that they might instead have been headed for the customers in the Germanic Confederation," said the study.
 
Ideal storage
 
Scientists have also found "unexpectedly high" levels of iron and copper in the old samples, when compared to modern champagne.
   
Copper sulfate was used at the time to protect against fungal diseases in grapevines. The iron may have come from nails that were used in the wood barrels that contained the champagne.
   
Even after nearly two centuries, the champagne did not go bad.
   
"We are often led to believe that hygiene is a modern concept, so it was inspiring to realize that the 170-year-old champagne samples presented very low concentrations of acetic acid, a sign of wine spoilage," said the study.
   
The findings also suggest that the cool, dark conditions in the deep sea might be ideal for champagne storage, researchers said.
   
Scientists savored some of the champagne to examine the all-important question of taste, and found that the practice of swirling the liquid in the glass really did improve the flavor.
   
"At first, the Baltic samples were described using terms such as 'animal notes,' 'wet hair,' 'reduction,' and sometimes 'cheesy,'" said the study, explaining that these flavors could result from fermentation and the lack of oxygen at the sea floor.
   
"Upon swirling the wine in the glass to oxygenate it, the aroma became far more pleasant, with the main aromas described as empyreumatic, grilled, spicy, smoky, and leathery, together with fruity and floral notes."
   
A bottle of the champagne sold at auction in 2012 for €15,000 ($18,600).
   
In 2011 a bottle of Veuve Clicquot raised from the same shipwreck was auctioned for a record-setting €30,000.

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CHAMPAGNE

French Champagne makers threaten boycott of Russia over ‘sparkling wine’ label

Russian elites could soon find themselves without their favourite French bubbles if Moet Hennessy makes good on a threat to halt champagne supplies following a new law signed by President Vladimir Putin.

French Champagne makers threaten boycott of Russia over 'sparkling wine' label
Russian lawmakers adopted legislation saying the word "champagne" can only be applied to wine produced in Russia. Photo: Alexander NEMENOV / AFP.

Moet Hennessy’s Russia office warned local partners it was suspending supplies after Russian lawmakers adopted legislation stipulating that the word “champagne” can only be applied to wine produced in Russia, while the world-famous tipple from France’s Champagne region should be called “sparkling wine”.

Leonid Rafailov, general director of AST, a top liquor distributor which works with a number of brands including Moet Hennessy, said on Saturday his firm had received a letter from the French company notifying it of the suspension.

“I confirm that such a letter exists, and it is justified,” Rafailov told AFP.

He said that in accordance with the legislation – signed off on by Putin on Friday – the company would have to undergo new registration procedures, among other requirements.

Sebastien Vilmot, Moet Hennessy managing director in Russia, declined to speak to AFP.

But in a statement released through Rafailov, Vilmot called the suspension a “temporary” measure before a solution could be found.

Moet Hennessy is part of French luxury goods group LVMH and known for such brands as Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon.

The French are fiercely protective of the term “champagne”, and it can only be made in the French region of the same name.

A copy of Moet Hennessy’s letter was first published on social media on Friday by a representative of a Moscow-based liquor importer and distributor.

Drinks market expert Vadim Drobiz suggested the legislation was open to interpretation but added that Moet Hennessy’s share of the Russian market was relatively small and well-heeled clients could find a replacement.

“If there is no Moet, there won’t be a state coup and Russian elites will not commit suicide,” Drobiz quipped.

But wine consultant Anna Chernyshova questioned the purpose of the amendments. “My phone has been ringing off the hook,” she said. “Me and my clients are thinking what to do next.”

Chernyshova, who helps people build wine collections, said she was not sure why the Russian parliament had passed such a law. “How will they walk back on it?” she told AFP. “So many officials love this champagne.”

Social media was abuzz with jokes, with wits making fun of the latest piece of Russian legislation. “Now it’s necessary to ban Scots and Americans from using the word “whisky”, joked restaurateur Sergei Mironov.

Popular singer Vasya Oblomov said Russian lawmakers could now adopt similar legislation regulating the use of the name “Mercedes” and even place names.

“I thought it was a joke,” wrote Putin’s self-exiled critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “I was wrong.”

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