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Some of the world's oldest champagne

In the beginning of July 2010 a group of divers from Åland and Sweden found a previously unknown shipwreck. It was found at a depth of approximately 50 meters in the southern part of Åland's outer archipelago, located in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland.

Before diving, the seabed was scanned using a sidescan echo locator, revealing a both clear and exciting image of a vessel standing on its keel with its two unbroken masts pointing up toward the surface. When the divers had reached a depth of approximately 30 meters they saw a mast top appearing from the darkness, and soon another. Down at the wreck the visibility was only two meters and the divers swam first to the bows and then, using their powerful lamps, systematically investigated the hull all the way to the stern.

The carvel-built hull was revealed to be almost intact except for the stern, where the transom had fallen away. The cargo hold seemed to be empty. Just behind the mainmast on the port side was found a brick oven with cooking pot, with the sides of the oven still standing. Behind this lay navigational instruments, plates and a kettle. In the stern, starboard of the rudderstock, the divers saw a number of bottles, which looked like they were made for storing sparkling wine. The bottles appeared to be lying embedded in straw. A feeling of euphoria began to creep over the divers – this was an extraordinary find. The well-preserved shipwreck stood there as if it had been carefully placed on the bottom by a giant hand, just waiting to be investigated.

Champagne found in Aland, Finland  
A number of the champagne bottles lie neatly stacked inside the hull. The fragile wreck is still intact, but if it should collapse then the bottles could be damaged or destroyed. Photo: Anders Näsman/The Government of Åland  

The hull's construction and the visible artefacts indicated that the shipwreck could be around two hundred years old. If the bottles with their characteristic form really did contain champagne then this was a sensational find. The divers took one bottle from the wreck for further investigation. On 16 July the news was published that what was believed to be the "world's oldest champagne" had been found, and that was the starting gun for a media circus, with mass media from around the world running the story.

In order to protect the wreck the Government of Åland quickly introduced diving restrictions in the vicinity. At the end of July, under the supervision of the Government, further dives were made on the wreck, when photo documentation was continued and a number of artefacts were protection salvaged. Among the objects that were salvaged were two octants, a ceramic vessel and porcelain. The investigation confirmed that the hull, despite its intact condition, was for the most part fragile and should not be exposed to unnecessary external contact.

Divers found champagne
The divers prepare to dive on the wreck at the end of August 2010. Photo: Henry Blom/The Government of Åland

What do we know about the ship?

The ship is a carvel-built, two-masted schooner with a circa 21.5 metre long and 6.5 metre broad hull. The technical details and artefacts found onboard allow the ship to be dated to the first half of the 1800s. Amongst the finds in the wreck were several plates, manufactured by Rörstrands porcelain factory during the period 1780-1830. No archive references to the ships origin or sinking have yet been found, but work is ongoing. The ship was most likely wrecked when she had come in to the old sea-lane leading from the Åland Sea to the island of Björkör. The final destination for the cargo of champagne is unknown – it can have been destined for some trading house or even the imperial court at St Petersburg.

Champagne ship wreck
This coffee kettle was found close to the ship's unusually well preserved brick oven. Photo: Anders Näsman/The Government of Åland

What do we know about the champagne in the wreck?

In total, 145 bottles of champagne were salvaged from the shipwreck. Some of the bottles originate from the well-known champagne house Veuve Clicquot. Some bottles are Heidsieck, today made by the house Vranken-Pommery Monopole. Other champagne was produced from the now closed champagne house of Juglar – today the producer Jacquesson produces champagne on the old Juglar lands. According to experts the champagne is from the first half of the 1800s. Various experts and historians are currently doing research to narrow down the exact years when the champagne was made.
The champagne from the wreck is of a sensationally good quality. One of the first to taste it was local sommelier Ella Grüssner Cromwell-Morgan. To the local newspaper, Ålandstidningen, she said that the champagne had a bouquet of "very ripe fruit, tones of golden raisins and a clear aroma of tobacco". She continued: "And, despite the fact that it was so amazingly old, there was a freshness to the wine. It wasn't debilitated in any way, rather it had a clear acidity which reinforced the sweetness. Finally, a very clear taste of having been stored in oak casks."

Champagne bottle
The much talked-about bottle is a real heavyweight in hand-blown, green glass, and is in very good condition. Photo: Marcus Lindholm/The Government of Åland

What will happen to the cargo of champagne?

The sunken ship is an ancient monument and the cargo belongs to the Government of Åland. A few bottles will be kept for museum purposes, while some other bottles will be auctioned, with the intent of selling the bottles at a reoccurring international champagne auction that will be held in Åland. The economic surplus that an auction might bring Åland is to be used especially for maritime archaeological work and for the benefit of the Baltic Sea environment.

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