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]

Bibo Barmaid
Bibo Barmaid Is Like a Keurig for Cocktails—and You Can Buy It Now
Bibo Barmaid
Bibo Barmaid

To make great-tasting cocktails at home, you could take a bartending class, or you could just buy a fancy gadget that does all the work for you. Imbibers interested in the hands-off approach should check out Bibo Barmaid, a cocktail maker that works like a Keurig machine for booze.

According to Supercall, all you need to turn the Bibo Barmaid system into your personal mixologist is a pouch of liquor and a pouch of cocktail flavoring. Bibo's liquor options include vodka, whiskey, rum, and agave spirit (think tequila), which can be paired with flavors like cucumber melon, rum punch, appletini, margarita, tangerine paloma, and mai tai.

After choosing your liquor and flavor packets, insert them into the machine, press the button, and watch as it dilutes the mixture and pours a perfect single portion of your favorite drink into your glass—no muddlers or bar spoons required.

Making cocktails at home usually means investing in a lot of equipment and ingredients, which isn't always worth it if you're preparing a drink for just yourself or you and a friend. With Bibo, whipping up a cocktail isn't much harder than pouring yourself a glass of wine.

Bibo Barmaid is now available on Amazon for $240, and cocktail mixes are available on Bibo's website starting at $35 for 18 pouches. The company is working on rolling out its liquor pouches in liquor stores and other alcohol retailers across the U.S.

[h/t Supercall]

Is There Any Point in Letting Red Wine Breathe?

by Aliya Whiteley

At the end of a long day, few things beat simple pleasures like watching a good film, eating a bar of chocolate the size of your head, or drinking a big glass of red wine.

By this point in the evening, most people don’t want to be told that they need to uncork the bottle and let the wine sit for at least 30 minutes before it becomes pleasantly drinkable. Yet that's (by the letter of the unwritten law) what you're supposed to do.

But why? Well, let's start with the assorted historical reasons.

Red wine has been around since the Stone Age. In fact, in 2011 a cave was uncovered in Armenia where the remains of a wine press, drinking and fermentation vessels, and withered grape vines were uncovered; the remains were dated at 5500 years old. Early winemaking often had a ritualistic aspect: Wine jars were found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and wine appears in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

The concept of letting wine "breathe" is, historically speaking, relatively new and probably has its roots in the way wine was once bottled and stored.

Traditionally, sulfur is added to wine in order to preserve it for longer, and if too much is added the wine might well have an ... interesting aroma when first opened—the kind of "interesting aroma" that bears more than a passing resemblance to rotten eggs. Contact with the air may have helped to remove the smell, so decanting wine may once have been a way of removing unwelcome odors, as well as getting rid of the sediment that built up in the bottom of bottles.

It’s also possible that the concept springs from the early 1860s, when Emperor Napoleon III asked Louis Pasteur to investigate why so much French wine was spoiling in transit. Pasteur published his results, which concluded that wine coming into contact with air led to the growth of bacteria, thus ruining the vino. However, small amounts of air improved the flavor of the wine by "aging" it. In bottles, with a cork stopper, the wine still came into contact with a small amount of oxygen, and by storing it for years the wine was thought to develop a deeper flavor.

However, how much of that actually matters today?

Many experts agree that there is no point in simply pulling out the cork and letting the wine sit in an open bottle for any period of time; the wine won’t come into enough contact with oxygen to make any difference to the taste.

However, decanting wine might still be a useful activity. The truth is this: It entirely depends on the wine.

Nowadays we don’t really age wine anymore; we make it with the aim of drinking it quickly, within a year or so. But some types of wine that are rich in tannins (compounds that come from the grape skins and seeds) can benefit from a period of time in a decanter, to soften the astringent taste. These include wines from Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, for instance.

If you really want to know if a particular wine would benefit from being given time to breathe, try your own experiment at home. Buy two bottles, decant one, and let it breathe for an hour. Do you notice a difference in the taste? Even if you don’t, it's an experiment that justifies opening two bottles of wine.

One word of warning: No matter where a wine comes from, it is possible to overexpose it to oxygen. So remember Pasteur’s experiments and don’t leave your wine out of the bottle for days. That, friends, would be one hell of a waste.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.


More from mental floss studios