Tasting the World’s Oldest Champagne

November 17, 2010 4:50 pm - Posted by Roland Hulme in Drink, Learn

An old German proverb states that the best things in life are “old wine and young women.”

Whether you agree with that statement or not, old wine will always have a place in the wine lover’s lexicon. There are few wine drinkers who don’t have a story about the oldest (and therefore grandest) wine they’ve ever tasted. Mine, for example, was a hundred-year-old brandy; buried by the distiller during World War One and not rediscovered until almost a century later.

Yet even that vintage pales into insignificance compared to a wine tasting held yesterday in Mariehamn, Finland. There, experts gathered to sample bottles of champagne recovered from a 19th century shipwreck – and left undisturbed beneath the frigid waves for nearly two centuries.

Remarkably, all those years underwater had ruined just a few bottles. In total, more than 168 survived intact, and were recovered from the wreck. At least three bottles were Veuve Clicquot – a brand founded in 1772 and still popular today. Others were from a Champagne house called Juglar, which has long since stopped producing.

It was originally difficult to pin an age on the champagne – estimates placed them as being from around 1780, matching the dating of the ship.

However, experts from Veuve Clicquot soon identified a distinctive comet motif on what remained of the labels. This motif was added in 1811, to commemorate a comet that crossed the skies of Champagne that summer and was credited with bringing a particularly bountiful harvest. Therefore, the bottles were clearly from the early 19th century.

Just two bottles were opened for tasting – one each of the Veuve Clicquot and Juglar. The once sparkling wine was almost flat with age, and the amber clarity had long since turned cloudy, flecked with cork. Yet remarkably, the wine was still not just drinkable – but delicious.

Wine taster Richard Juhlin – commonly credited as ‘The #1 Champagne Expert in the World’ – was on hand to sample the bottles. He commented on their intense aroma – “So different from anything you’ve tasted before.” The Juglar boasted dominant mushroom and yeast flavors, with a honey sweetness underneath.

In contrast, Juhlin commented that the Veuve Clicquot was “chardonnay-like” with green notes of linden blossoms and lime peels.

The Veuve Clicquot is especially significant historically because it represents a period of winemaking that will never come again, yet contradictorily was also the first generation of champagnes produced using the ‘modern’ method.

The wine is from a period that ‘will never come again’ because it was made using grapes that predated the phylloxera plague – a root louse epidemic that virtually eliminated European grape varieties during the late 19th century.

Although the grapes used to produce champagne exist today – most commonly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier – these modern incarnations are grown from varieties originally grafted onto hardier New World rootstock. It’s arguable that this pioneering process subtly changed the taste – and with virtually no basis of comparison available, modern wine lovers will never know how what they drink today differs from the wines enjoyed by our forebears.

Yet the 1811 Veuve Clicquot is also strikingly modern. The so-called 1811 ‘comet’ vintage was the first to use the remuage technique to remove sediment, which produced the earliest version of the clear, bubbly champers we enjoy today.

Although remuage is only used for Prestige Cuvées these days (with most champagne houses in favor of more affordable methods of sediment removal) the standards ‘comet’ champagne set are still the basis for all the sparkling wine we enjoy today.

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