Bottoms Up

After years on the ocean floor, these five salvaged beverages were still drinkable—for better or for worse.

Published July 15, 2016

The ocean floor can make an oddly effective booze cellar. It has almost everything on a cellaring checklist: a cool, steady temperature that keeps bacteria in check; darkness, to prevent sunlight from triggering chemical changes; and a means of keeping corks moist, which blocks oxygen (accomplished in traditional cellars by storing wine bottles on their sides). Maritime history is filled with tales of cargo ships that sank with stores of booze on board. Occasionally, the bottles have been salvaged in a still-drinkable state, allowing us to actually taste the past. Here are five alcoholic drinks from the deep, with tasting notes. Bottoms up!

“Buttery”

Only about one percent of wines improve with age. Champagne ages well because the carbonation acts as a preservative, and time also allows very tannic red wines to lose those tannins, releasing more complex flavors. Only a handful of white wines, including some acidic Rieslings, can age for years without ruining their flavor. Luckily for future salvagers, when the Vliegend Hert wrecked on sandbanks off what is now Belgium in 1735, it was laden with wine that most likely came from Germany’s Mosel region, known for Rieslings. Winter storms pulverized the broken vessel and shifting silt hid the bottles until salvagers rediscovered the wreck in 1981, 18 meters beneath the surface of the chilly North Sea. Whether through its hardy Riesling constitution or just dumb luck, the wine was drinkable, although extreme age hadn’t exactly improved it. According to one taster, the wine smelled very buttery and tasted highly oxidized—the wine equivalent of fruit browning, caused by exposure to oxygen. Another factor might have affected the flavor: merchants often shipped wine partly evaporated and reconstituted it when it reached its destination.

“Unpleasant”

Salvagers could have knocked back the contents of a 200-year-old stone bottle recovered in 2014 off the coast of Poland, though they may have gagged. At first, salvagers thought they’d rescued a bottle of soda water because it was stamped with the brand “Selters,” which had been associated for centuries with a famous spring and eponymous German town. The Selters product was—and remains—known for its mineral taste and soda carbonation. (In the United States, some people colloquially call soda water “seltzer.”) When researchers opened the bottle, they discovered that it had been reused. Instead of just water, it held some kind of watered-down spirit—vodka or a kind of gin called jenever—but salt water had seeped through the cork and interrupted the flavor. Scientists who studied the bottle’s contents described its smell as “unpleasant.”

“Animal Notes”

In 2010, when a local team salvaged more than a hundred champagne bottles* from an 1843 Baltic shipwreck near the Åland Islands, in 50 meters of dark, 2 to 4 °C water, the divers had to keep their thumbs over the corks as they ascended, lest the pressure change make the corks pop. One popped anyway, and the divers quickly tasted the contents. When they reached the boat, they realized they were holding vaunted Veuve Clicquot champagne. Word spread and oenophiles scrambled for a sip. They detected coffee, yeast, manure, tobacco, and “animal notes” such as cheese and wet hair from ongoing yeast activity, as well as lime blossoms, honey, and raisins. It was also very sweet, as expected. Through correspondence between company head Madame Clicquot and her customers—European nobles—historians knew that many 19th-century courts liked their champagne much more saccharine than we do today. Russians requested 300 grams of sugar per liter, while Germans—the likely recipients of this particular batch—preferred about 150. Modern champagne contains about six.

* The salvage crew recovered beer, too. Although the original beer apparently smelled like “burnt rubber, over-ripe cheese, and goat” after going bad on the ocean floor, a Finnish pub carefully re-created the recipe and claims their version of the beer is fresh, fruity, and spicy.

“Caramelized Bananas”

As the Great War raged across Europe in 1916, the small wooden Jönköping was carrying precious contraband champagne, wine, and cognac to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia when a German U-boat sunk it in the Baltic. It landed at a fortuitous depth of 63 meters, where the water exerts a pressure of about six atmospheres, the same as inside a champagne bottle. By the time side-scan sonar picked up the wreck in 1997, the wine and cognac had spoiled, but the pressure had kept both the champagne and the seawater from percolating through the corks, preserving thousands of bottles of 1907 Heidsieck & Co. Monopole Diamant Bleu champagne. Tasters gave rave reviews, detecting gunpowder, brine, burnt citrus, and caramelized bananas. The 1907 Heidsieck was a popular vintage—it was also carried on board the infamous Titanic. Its popularity continued unabated; in 1998, a salvaged Jönköping bottle sold at auction for a then-world-record sum of US $4,068.

“Malodorous”

One chilly night in 1909, a luxurious ocean liner from the White Star Line called the RMS Republic was heading out from New York City, fully stocked for a Mediterranean cruise. It collided with another ship and sank into 85 meters of water, where it stayed until 1987 when divers searching for lost coins salvaged about 300 bottles of wine and champagne. One diver recalls tasting a Moet and Chandon that still had bubbles in it. “I got a little buzz out of it,” he said. Other crewmembers described the champagne as having a “robust, hearty taste with a pale color similar to ginger ale.” Those first bottles may have been anomalies, as it turned out that bacteria occurring naturally on the ocean floor had invaded many of the other bottles, making them “malodorous.”