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Spice News: A Tale of Champagne and Peppercorns, Shipwrecked in the Baltic Sea

150 year old bubbly, anyone? A Finnish diver recently discovered a cache of French champagne and spices in a Baltic shipwreck. Photo: Augusto Mendes, Government of the Aland Islands

150 year old bubbly, anyone? A Finnish diver recently discovered a cache of French champagne and spices in a Baltic shipwreck. Photo: Augusto Mendes, Government of the Aland Islands

You might want to open that bottle of Veuve Cliquot chilling in the back of the fridge before reading this. And then sprinkle a little freshly ground black pepper over your smoked salmon on toast….

Christopher Ekstrom, a diver on the Finnish island of Marienham, discovered last summer a cache of 173 bottles of Champagne while exploring the wreck of a two-masted wooden schooner submerged in 160 feet of water in the Baltic Sea for roughly a century and a half.

In “Buried Treasure in Baltic Brings Back Vintage Taste,” (The New York Times, Wednesday, December 15, 2010, p. A11), John Tagliabue writes that the diver brought one bottle to the surface and opened it, thinking he’d be tasting brine. Instead, he saw bubbles rising in clear liquid. “’This is not sea water,’” he said.

The Champagne, which has been examined by experts, consists of bottles from Juglar, “a premium French Champagne” that was renamed Jacquesson after 1830 and Vueve Cliquot. The underside of the cork from one of four opened bottles bears Veuve Cliquot’s signature “star and anchor”—the star representing “a comet that crossed the skies of Champagne in 1811 and supposedly caused fabulous vintages.”

But that wasn’t all Ekstrom discovered. Along with crates of “long withered” grapes, rugs, coffee beans and some beer, the cargo also revealed a stash of black and white peppercorns and coriander seed.

The ship is thought to have been destined for St. Petersburg and the court of Czar Alexander II, whose reign lasted from 1855 to 18881. It is unknown exactly when it sank, but the pressure, darkness and 40 degree temperature at the bottom of the Baltic appear to have kept the Champagne intact.

Now there is talk of auctioning the bottles to collectors, though it’s unclear whether all the Champagne is actually drinkable. Richard Julian, a Swedish writer of books about Champagne, “said he noted ‘great variations’ in the first 10 bottles tasted, ‘from seawater to great stuff.’ ” Among the aromas: “…a mature aroma, almost of cow cheese, Brie or Vacherin…” and a “liqueur-like sweetness.”

No word on the flavor of the peppercorns and coriander seed.

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