Wine / Message in a (champagne) bottle

“Perhaps Rasputin’s seeming resistance to poison built up by scoffing champagne was part of the reason he was so difficult to execute?” writes wine columnist RICHARD CALVER

I WAS asked how best to store wine. Awash with advice, I talked about what wines don’t like: heat, light and being moved.

They don’t mind it being a bit warm, although that makes them mature more quickly, but being heated up and then cooled down seems to throw them out of chemical balance. So, choosing a cold, dark and dank place of fairly even temperature is good for shooting horror movies and for wine storage.

Richard Calver.

Richard Calver.

This idea has been taken to an extreme by some winemakers in Italy, Spain, France and California where wines have been stored on the seabed or at the littoral zone. Don’t wave away this idea, it seems to be based on the outcome of a shipwreck, a bit like my love life, and has so far had a number of benefits. But also some downsides, which I’ll come to.

According to Tim Hampson, in his book “Wine Enthusiasts’ Manual”, the idea came about on the discovery in 2010 of 140 bottles of unopened wine inside a 200-year-old wreck found in the Aland outer archipelago. This ship sank in the Baltic sea on the way to Russia from France.

The Russian Imperial Court’s loss was history’s gain, with a number of the bottles of champagne withstanding the test of time and getting through living with Neptune particularly well. Hampson reports that one of the 47 bottles of champagne that survived was sold at auction to a collector from Singapore for 26,000 English pounds (or about $A42,000). I found it fascinating the chemical analysis of the champagne showed that it contained high levels of sugar and traces of arsenic.

The Russian court obviously liked their wines sweet because the sugar levels in the champagne were as high or higher as in today’s Sauternes. The speculation is that arsenic was part of a program to control insects and would have been common in wines of the time as a residue.

So the thought occurred to me that perhaps Rasputin’s seeming resistance to poison built up by scoffing champagne was part of the reason he was so difficult to execute?

Reputedly, he was hard to kill: first poisoned, shot twice, beaten and then thrown in a river where he drowned, which takes us back to drowning wine.

Newspaper reports from 2012 reveal that a French winemaker, Bruno Lemoine, who is associated with the Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion in Bordeaux, thought it tres amusant to compare 2009 Bordeaux stored in the sea with the same vintage stored in the usual cellar. The barrel that went to the sea also got some air as it was tethered at the low tide mark, hence getting rid of one of the disadvantages of storing wine in the deep: access.

Osmosis changed the sea-tethered wine with the salt reacting well with the heavy tannin of the 2009 vintage. The tasters declared it superior to the land-stored wine and the educated Mr Lemoine remarking that the Romans added sea water to their wine.

But this one experiment surely won’t turn the tide of tradition because there are a number of downsides. From a local perspective, Canberra, of course, is a long way from the sea. Plus you need to beware wine-loving sea-creatures that might want to infest the inside of the bottle or, as with barnacles, the outside, as well as saltwater contamination; not forgetting that every bottle incurs the cost of getting it to and from the sea bed.

Perhaps my fascination with this form of storage derives from the linkages with an old lawyer joke? Question: what is 50 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? Answer: a good start.

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