Wine & Food

    The night I drank century-old champagne from a shipwreck

    21 February 2018

    If champagne lovers ever told stories of ones that got away, mine would be a bottle of Roederer ’28. It had rested uninterrupted since purchase in my wife’s grandmother’s cellar and I had eyed it longingly for years. After her death, aged 101, I asked what was to become of it. Too late — it had been chucked out as it was assumed to be well past its prime.

    We don’t normally think of champagne as something to keep for decades, though my all-time favourite remains a magnum of ’64 Moët drunk at the turn of the century in Reims. It was the combination of honeyed toastiness that did it, because at this sort of age, you are not looking for a zingy, acidic, cleansing taste but for depth and complexity along with the occasional bubble. It was run a close second by a Krug ’89 at Le Cinq in Paris, which was served by maître’d /sommelier Eric Beaumard in large Burgundy glasses rather than flutes. Salon is another grande cuvée that ages well; some in the wine trade refer to it as ‘Bâtard with bubbles’, such is its parity with great white Burgundy. As for extreme age, well, as we know with humans, anything can happen, but the result can still be memorable, if not predictable.

    My friend Gennady Jozefavichus, the sybaritic Russian travel writer, recently invited me to a banquet in honour of a century-old champagne: two bottles of Heidsieck 1907 ‘Goût Américain’ would be opened at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. A consignment of more than 4,000 bottles had been ordered by the Tsar in 1916 and despatched from Stockholm in a 60ft schooner, the Jönköping. Unfortunately, it was sunk by a German U-boat in the Baltic Sea near Finland. The boat settled 200 ft down in total darkness at a constant temperature of 4C: near perfect conditions for the storage of champagne, due to the near-equal pressure of the bubbles in the bottle and the water outside.

    Some enterprising divers found this haul in 1997 and after squabbles about ownership, nearly half of the bottles were retrieved and found to be in excellent condition. Initially, they sold for up to $10,000 each, though the auction price has settled to around a quarter of that.

    The two bottles we drank at the Metropol were brought along by Fredrik Åström, a charmingly eccentric Swedish hotelier who has more than 100 of them, although his real passion is corkscrews, of which he possesses several thousand. The bottles themselves had alarmingly low levels, with almost a quarter of the contents missing, though the corks and capsules were completely intact. There was also quite a bit of dirt and residue surrounding the lip of the bottle, but once the cork was gently extracted and poured, the champagne appeared to be in near-perfect condition.

    There were no bubbles remaining in the first bottle and there was something distinctively sweet about the nose. This was to be expected, as champagne from a century ago was made with far more sugar and ‘Goût Américain’ was sweeter still. The taste, though, was intriguing: more like fruitcake or marmalade than champagne. As for the second bottle, it actually managed to exude a few bubbles, though nowhere near the typical 20 million that a good bottle of champagne should have. Despite this sign of life, it had a far more citric taste and lacked the depth of the first. My neighbour, an importer of natural wines, was unimpressed by either bottle: ‘They were different with interesting aromas in the nose… but just too sweet.’

    The Heidsieck was up against impressive opposition as Roederer had supplied a range of bottles, including Cristal ’09, which was certainly at the other end of the sweetness spectrum. However, a number of other guests must have agreed with my neighbour, as some glasses from the first bottle remained unfinished. It would be expecting quite a lot for century-old champagne to be still drinkable after being exposed to the air for more than an hour: typically, it would lose depth and finish with a watery end. In this case, it was the opposite. There was even more depth of flavour and a clean aftertaste of apples. There was so much life in it I could imagine this still being drunk more than a decade from now. To think that champagne destined for Tsarist Russia is still capable of improvement made the experience even sweeter.