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Heidi Ikonen, visitaland.com
Heidi Ikonen, visitaland.com

What Does 170-Year-Old Champagne Taste Like?

Heidi Ikonen, visitaland.com
Heidi Ikonen, visitaland.com

In 2010, divers found a sizable amount of alcohol—including 168 bottles of 170-year-old champagne—tucked away in a shipwreck on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Two milliliters made it to the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne in France, where biochemist Philippe Jeandet and his colleagues analyzed it and reported their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Markings on the bottles dated the booze, but also told investigators where it came from. The remarkably old drink originated from three champagne houses: Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Heidsieck and Juglar. The former two still operate today.

Jeandet and his team found important clues in the champagne’s ingredients. According to Nature.com, the shipwreck’s location—just off the Finnish Åland archipelago—might suggest that the cargo was headed to Russia, but the bottles contained 300 grams of sugar per liter, half of what Russians were normally known to drink. Instead, it is theorized that the loot was going to Germany, where the civilians enjoyed a more modestly sweet drink. Regardless, this would be much sweeter than today’s champagne, which generally only has about 10 grams of sugar per liter.

The bottles also had higher concentrations of iron and copper than contemporary champagne, but a lower percentage of alcohol. Presence of wood tannins suggested that the bubbly was fermented in wooden barrels. The team also found low levels of acetic acid, which meant it had not spoiled.

In 2011, two of these bottles were auctioned off, one for a staggering €30,000 (then around $44,000). The money was given to fund marine archaeology scholarships. Eleven more were sold the following year, with the rest being stored in Åland.

So what did this ancient booze taste like? The paper explains:

At first, the Baltic samples were described using terms such as ‘animal notes,’ ‘wet hair,’ ‘reduction,’ and sometimes ‘cheesy.’ ‘Animal notes’ are unequivocally related to the presence of volatile phenols ... ‘wet hair’ descriptors were to be expected for a wine that had spent such a long time sheltered from any oxygen source, and they were justified by the presence of light sulfurous compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, methanethiol, and dimethyldisulfide ... Finally, the term ‘cheesy’ is related to butanoic and octanoic acids.

Fortunately, when given time to breathe, the champagne’s taste improved. Tasters used words like “grilled,” “spicy,” “smoky,” and “leathery” to describe the aromas.

Thanks to dark and cold conditions, the ocean served as an underwater wine cellar and kept the alcohol in excellent condition. “The identification of very specific flavor and aroma compounds points to a very complex product, like modern champagne, albeit having been altered somewhat,” Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said. “Considering that these champagnes had been ‘aged underwater’ for 170 years, they were amazingly well preserved.”

In an effort to test out how champagne age underwater, 350 bottles of a newer vintage have been placed in the water. Every few years, tasters will unearth a bottle and compare it against an exact replica stored above ground to see how different conditions can affect the taste.

[h/t: Nature.com, Gizmodo.com]

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History
84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
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It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.


A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
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Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.


Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.


New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.


American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
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With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.


Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
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A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.


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Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

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Courtesy New District
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Food
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
Courtesy New District
Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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