In 2010, a group of divers discovered a cache of 168 wine bottles in a shipwreck off the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea. It was later found out that the ship had set sail around the early 1840s but was struck by disaster on its voyage, sinking into the ocean between Sweden and Finland. It also transpired that among its precious vinous cargo were 47 bottles of Veuve Clicquot Champagne.
Through testing, the rediscovered bottles were estimated to have been from the 1839 harvest, a period of the Champagne house’s history that would have seen Madame Clicquot herself participating in the blending and tasting of wines. But even more remarkable was that these ancient bottles were incredibly well preserved and still considered worthy of drinking – ‘sweet but balanced by a fine acidity’, according to the Veuve Clicquot team. It was a miracle, considering the passage of 170 years, with these rare discoveries later auctioned for €30,000 per bottle.
This finding didn’t just whip collectors into a frenzy. The emergence of these unexpectedly well-preserved bottles from the depths of the ocean sent the Champagne house on an experimental voyage of its own.
After initial investigations, in 2014 Veuve Clicquot launched a project titled ‘Cellar in the Sea’, with the idea of storing its bottles deep in the ocean to better understand the behaviour of wine under extreme ageing conditions. The maison decided to submerge 350 bottles in the same area of the Baltic Sea where the shipwreck had been found. For the purposes of comparison, identical bottles were placed in the house’s chalk cellars in Reims, 42m (138ft) below sea level and at a temperature of 10°C.
In order to take into account the impact of variables such as bottle size, sweetness level and blending, four different cuvées were selected: non-vintage Brut Yellow Label in 75cl bottle (2010 base) and magnum (2008 base), Vintage Rosé 2004 and Demi- Sec (2010 base). Bottles were disgorged on the same date, then placed for ageing in these two places.
In the Baltic Sea, the bottles were placed about 40m (131ft) deep, with no light and a constant low temperature of 4°C. Down here, a regular and gentle movement is provided by the currents. The external pressure is 5 atmospheres – coincidentally, the same as the pressure found within a bottle of Champagne. The Baltic Sea has low salinity (20 times lower than that of the Atlantic Ocean) and even so, there is no perceived contamination by seawater. A recent scientific analysis of bottles first submerged back in 2014 (carried out in collaboration with the oenology departments of Bordeaux and Reims universities) showed that seawater had not managed to penetrate the bottles.
The appearance of the bottles, cloaked in a veil of sea debris, hinted at the time they had spent in their watery cellar
Away from the scientific evaluations, though, the team plan to carry out comparative tastings at regular intervals. ‘This oenological experience of ageing in extreme conditions allows us to continually deepen our knowledge of our wines and their capacity to stand the test of time,’ says Veuve Clicquot chef de cave Didier Mariotti.
This is how I found myself, on a beautiful summer solstice day, transported to small island in the Baltic Sea for an intriguing tasting organised by the maison. The team chose to showcase the results of its experiments at the site of the shipwreck, and on our way to the island, on a small cruiser chartered from Silverskår harbour, we witnessed bottles pulled theatrically from the bottom of the sea by a team of divers. The appearance of the bottles, cloaked in a veil of sea debris, hinted at the amount of time they had spent in their watery cellar.
We arrived at what the maison has playfully dubbed Champagne Island to embark on our tasting. At this time of year, the sun never sets on the Ålands, adding to the surreal nature of the proceedings. As the Veuve Clicquot team poured the wine, the bottles almost seemed to add a hint of salinity to the air.
For each of the four cuvées, we tasted wines from the cellar and the sea side by side, with bottles plucked from the depths of the sea just two days prior to our tasting. In general, the Champagnes aged in the cellar were more open, with broader fruits and more tertiary notes, while those aged in the Baltic Sea were a little shy and rather closed, with tighter fruit and more non-fruit flavours. The Brut Yellow Label showed the most prominent difference, while the variations in the Vintage Rosé were the least significant, with the use of red grape varieties appearing to have had a further protective effect on ageing.
The 2023 tasting was the second to be carried out after an initial session in 2017, and the next one is expected to be held in three to five years’ time. However, the study is scheduled to continue for a total of 40 years. ‘Ageing underwater has brought us something different,’ says Mariotti. ‘But we need to wait. Time is important, especially at the low temperature of 4°C in the Baltic Sea.’
Comparing Veuve Clicquot Champagne from the cellar and the sea…
Vintage Rosé 2004
Aged in the cellar
Vintage Rosé is made by blending a small portion (10–13%) of still red wine from Pinot Noir from Bouzy. The blend is predominantly Pinot Noir (50%), with Chardonnay (30%) and Meunier (20%). The colour is a medium salmon pink with an orange edge. It is fleshy, with notes of flowers, blood orange, strawberry, kirsch, biscuits, caramelised nuts and a hint of cigar box. The mousse is well integrated, and the palate is broad, with generous fruits and sweet spices. Dosage 6g/l.
The colour is medium salmon pink with a slightly less orange edge. The flavours are similar, with blood orange, strawberry, cherry, biscuits, sweet spices and a hint of caramel. The mousse is slightly more evident, which makes the wine more vibrant and lively. Generous fruits satisfy the palate, leading to a slightly bitter finish with a lick of orange peel. The difference in the vintage rosés is the least significant, probably because of the protective effects of the red wine.
Brut Yellow Label (magnum, 2008 base)
Aged in the cellar
Brut Yellow Label in magnum format spends longer on lees than the 75cl bottle. The wine is lively
and elegant, with notes of Meyer lemon, apricot, peach, lemon curd, freshly ground coffee and mocha. It is fresher than in 75cl, with a brighter acidity – because of the bottle format and also the difference in base vintage. The palate is complex and rich, with a harmony of layered flavours. The mousse is creamy and persistent. Dosage 9g/l.
The magnum bottle ages well, with more vibrancy and complexity. As with the Yellow Label in the 75cl bottle, the wine is less open, with more tension. It has floral notes, with lemon, lime, pomegranate, wild strawberry and light toast, with more wet-stone notes and a hint of salinity. The palate is intense, with dense flavours. The mousse is lively. A lemony, salty finish stretches the palate.
Brut Yellow Label (75cl bottle, 2010 base)
Aged in the cellar
An iconic cuvée, Brut Yellow Label is mainly
Pinot Noir (50–55%) blended with Chardonnay (28–33%) and Meunier (15–20%), coming from 50–60 different crus. It has flavours of citrus, apricot, peach, dried fig, lemon tart and brioche, with tertiary notes of roasted hazelnuts and dark chocolate. It is more expressive and open, showing beautiful and ideal maturation. Dosage 9g/l.
Brut Yellow Label in 75cl showed the most significant difference. It is less open, with a more linear structure. The fruit profile is more tart
and acidic, with notes of citrus, cranberry and raspberry. Non-fruit elements, including green olives, herbs, oyster shells, raw almonds and a hint of truffle, are added. The palate is less generous and leaner, with a lemony and salty finish.
Demi-Sec (2010 base)
Aged in the cellar
The blend is Pinot Noir (40–45%) with Meunier (30–35%) and Chardonnay (20–25%). It has luscious fruits of citrus, pear, honeydew melon and peach, with candy floss, pie crust and sweet spices. Some tertiary flavours of chocolate and caramelised walnuts add layers and complexity. The sweetness is more prominent, with viscosity on the palate balanced by acidity. Dosage 45g/l.
The sea bottle has similar pronounced fruits of citrus, pear, apple, peach and melon, layered with sweet spices, honeyed gingers and a touch of yeast and toastiness. It is sweet yet refreshing, with more energy and tension. Sweet tones continue on the palate, which is structured and balanced by fine acidity. Integrated sugars and a soft mousse create a smooth and mellow mouthfeel.