Under the Sea: A Champagne story at hidden depths

Leclerc Briant ageing under the sea with a driver approaching the box

Underwater vinification and ageing have been on the radar for some years now. Uncover the secrets of these mysterious methods, which, in the depths below the sea’s surface, benefit from optimal ageing conditions: darkness, pressure, stable temperature, and the ebb and flow dictated by pressure fluctuations and tidal cycles.

Champagne bottles dating back 170 years found in the Baltic Sea

You might recall that in July 2010, 168 bottles were recovered from a depth of 55 metres from the shipwreck of a vessel that sank around 1840 off the Aland Islands in the Baltic Sea. The cargo included bottles produced by Juglar (a former Champagne house that became part of Jacquesson & Fils in 1829), Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and, a handful by Champagne Heidsieck.

In 2015, research was conducted by Philippe Jeandet (professor of food biochemistry at the Champagne Vines and Wines Research Unit at the University of Reims) and Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin (University of Munich) to determine the quality of these mysterious bottles. These scientists were wondering what these old Champagnes tasted like.

Their findings revealed that, despite the considerable age of the bottles and the underwater preservation conditions, the wines had retained their intrinsic character. Oenologists involved in the project observed freshness and distinctive floral and fruity notes when tasting both a bottle of Juglar Champagne and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot from the cargo. “We were amazed to find that the acetic acid (vinegar) levels were only slightly higher than those found in modern Champagnes,” said Professor Jeandet. Copper levels were also slightly higher than today (due to using sulphur on the vines). The difference in alcohol content is nevertheless quite significant, with an average of 9.5% for these old Champagnes (compared with around 12.5% today). According to Champagne expert Richard Juhlin, “The Clicquot is fairly dry, rather like a Riesling. It reveals a rich yellow colour with green hues, along with elegant, refined notes of lime zest, white flowers and lime blossom, culminating in a spiced, toasted note and a bouquet resembling that of Brie de Meaux. It combines incredible freshness with an endless persistence on the palate, comparable to a very old sweet wine.”

The discovery of the bottles in 2010 caught worldwide attention inspiring a number of Champagne houses…

Verve Cliquot being submerged in the sea

Bottle of Veuve Clicquot sells for a record €30,000 at auction

A one-off auction took place on the Aland Archipelago on Friday 3 June 2011. One of the bottles of Veuve Clicquot that was over 200 years old and retrieved from the wreck a year earlier was auctioned for €30,000, earning it the title of most expensive Champagne ever sold at auction. This title now belongs to a Perrier-Jouët bottle dating back to 1874, which achieved a hammer price of over €50,000 on 2 December 2021 in London.

The Veuve Clicquot bottle is a deeply symbolic one as it was produced by Madame Clicquot herself when she ran the trading house in the 19th century. This fact accounts for the relentlessness of the buyers on the day. Following a fierce battle with an American bidder, both bottles (the €30,000 Veuve Clicquot along with another bottle of Juglar which was auctioned for €24,000) were acquired by a single Singapore-based bidder, according to auctioneer John Kapon. The starting price for the Veuve Clicquot was set at €10,000 while oenologist Richard Juhlin had mentioned a price of €100,000 at the time of its discovery. As the hammer struck, a tumult erupted in the room packed with journalists, spectators, and purchasing agents. “This price consecrates not only the value of the wine, but also the prestige of the house,” stated Ms. Moreau, historian of the Veuve Clicquot house, who had the opportunity to taste the wine.

“The government considers that these bottles were produced to be enjoyed,” said Björn Häggblom, spokesman for the Government of Aland, addressing those who believed these bottles belonged in a museum. “This was more than a Champagne sale, it was history,” said John Kapon a few minutes after bringing down the hammer and cementing these two unique bottles into wine history.

CHampagne Leclerc Briant being brought up from the sea

Underwater Champagne revolution: Veuve Clicquot, Roederer, Leclerc-Briant…

All these discoveries prompted leading Champagne houses to embark on underwater vinification. At Veuve Clicquot and Roederer, these ageing techniques are no more than trials at this point. Meanwhile, Leclerc-Briant has already adopted the method.

Leclerc-Briant and its Abyss cuvée

Leclerc Briant epitomises Champagne excellence. It has pioneered numerous ageing techniques, including that of maturing bottles under the sea. In 2017, Leclerc-Briant produced an exceptional cuvée made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, aged in the sea off the coast of Brittany. Bottles were immersed at a depth of 60 metres for 15 months. The 2017 vintage is available at iDealwine if you wish to set off on a voyage of discovery and sample this extremely distinctive Champagne.

Maison Roederer tests the waters

On Sunday 14 June 2009, following a year-long immersion at a depth of 15 metres, 600 bottles of Louis Roederer Champagne were lifted from the water. This was the first time the renowned Reims-based Champagne house conducted such an experiment. But it was by no means the first of its kind as 600 bottles of red Crozes-Hermitage and Montagny Premier Cru had already been brought ashore the previous year after spending 12 months ageing under the sea. Rocked by the current at a depth of 15 metres, the bottles of Louis Roederer Brut Premier Champagne also benefited from the exceptional environmental conditions of Europe’s highest tidal bay, that of Mont Saint-Michel Bay, converted into the perfect cellar for the occasion with a constant temperature of 10°C and the movement of the Channel’s turbulent waters.

Veuve Clicquot pursues its trials

Following the exciting discovery of the shipwreck, Veuve Clicquot is now experimenting with Champagnes aged at sea. Recognising the potential of this ageing technique, the Champagne house, founded in 1772, brought up the following from the depths of the Baltic Sea in June 2023: 100 bottles of 2010 Brut Carte Jaune, magnums from 2008, 50 bottles of Cuvée Rosé from the 2004 vintage and 100 bottles of 2010 Demi-Sec . A ritual that will no doubt live on for some time to come.

Champagne below the waves… but that’s not all

We’ve been talking about Champagne, but these prestigious sparkling wines aren’t the only ones that enjoy the depths. Winemakers in the Landes and the South West of France have also jumped on the bandwagon.

Emmanuel Poirmeur, a winemaker from the Basque Country, has gone one step further and also vinifies his wines under the sea. This pioneer filed a patent in 2007 to protect the technique. His wines undergo a second alcoholic fermentation in the sea, in the bottle, producing a sparkling wine, further highlighting the important role that yeast plays in this process. The result is an outstanding masterpiece that shows off the characteristics of the Bay of Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

The phenomenal work of Château Le Puy with its cuvée Retour des Îles is well worth mentioning. Here, the wine travels across the Atlantic in barrels for 10 months on the Très Hombres, a thirty-metre sailing boat. The ship sets sail from Brittany and is guided by the winds along the Portuguese coast to Cape Verde. It then heads for Brazil, the Caribbean, the Azores and completes its journey along the coast of the United Kingdom. This is a long journey for the barrels, as they experience different temperature changes. Journeying with coffee, spices and cocoa, the wine acquires unique aromas along the way. You’ll also find this exceptional wine in our collection.

Oceans and seas certainly offer incredible possibilities for the vinification and ageing of Champagne and wine. In light of scientific and technological breakthroughs, these techniques certainly have the wind in their sails…