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Champagne at the bottom of the sea

Generations of readers have thrilled to the adventures of Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and it’s easy to see why. In the popular imagination, the seabed holds sunken treasures just waiting to be discovered. But what if it weren’t just our imagination? What if the oceans really did hold the key to uncovering lost-lost booty — such as the bottles of Champagne recently salvaged from the deep, buried in the seafloor calmly awaiting tasting. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction ...

So let us now relive the adventures of the three Champagne Houses in question, whose experiences read like something out of a Jules Verne novel. Out story starts with a hunting expedition in the underwater forest of Crespo Island, travelling 300 feet under the sea with Captain Nemo and his crew as our guides.
What we find there are bottles of Heidsieck & C° Monopole Champagne destined for the Imperial Russian Army!

"Captain Nemo continued to force his way into the dark depths of the forest whose shrubs were growing scarcer and scarcer. I noticed that vegetable life was disappearing faster than animal life."

Those dark depths soon revealed the whereabouts of a treasure trove of bubbly made by Champagne House Heidsieck & C° Monopole. The bottles had gone missing in November 1916 when the Swedish freighter Jönköping was sunk by a German U-boat in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Finland. Down went the boat and its cargo (bubbly plus cognac and Burgundy wine), so depriving Tsar Nicolas II and his Chief of Staff of some 5,000 bottles of Champagne, or two per cent of the 250,000 bottles they required every year to quench their thirst for bubbly and the magic that went with it.

In the summer of 1997 a team of Swedish divers located the wreck of the Jönköping in the hope of salvaging the bottles from their watery resting place. It was now almost a century since the bottles had plummeted to the depths roamed by Captain Nemo: a dark, cool, stable environment that exactly replicated the ideal storage conditions provided by the cellars and crayères (chalk pits) of the Champagne Houses.

All of the effervescence intact!

Another major advantage of this environment was the near absence of vegetable life in the deep-sea region (as also described by Jules Verne). Plankton is a voracious feeder and would have gobbled up the precious corks in seconds. But plankton didn’t stand a chance in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea, so the Champagne was not only none the worse for its experience but arguably in much better condition than if it had spent the same length of time in a cellar.
The first bottles were recovered by divers in July 1998 and, much to the surprise and delight of the expedition experts, they were found to "taste surprisingly young and to have retained all their distinctive sparkle". The effervescence had survived intact for 90 years, thanks partly to aging in close-to-perfect conditions and partly to skilled craftsmanship by the wine’s original makers. For Champagne House Heidsieck & C° Monopole there could be no better testament to the outstanding quality of its 1907 vintage, no finer validation of their predecessors’ prowess. It was an immensely gratifying experience for the Champagne community at large.

Echoes of the Titanic!

The big question here of course is, does a great wine have virtually limitless aging potential? One thing is for sure: 1907 was an exemplary vintage by anyone’s standards despite appalling weather and very low yields (3.250kg/ha). What this story proves is that nothing is impossible for those who try. Champagne House Heidsieck & C° Monopole triumphed over difficult odds, inspired by a passion for the land and an art of winemaking that resides in the mysterious process of effervescence. Its success sends out a powerful message to us all.
The high point of this story came when these priceless bottles were auctioned in London at Christie’s in October 1998. Each one fetched a staggering £2,400, or roughly 20,000 old French francs (a nod perhaps to those 20,000 leagues under the sea?). These dizzying prices were in part due to the success of the film "Titanic" (a sort of modern-day equivalent of Verne storytelling). It seems the goût américain (American taste) 1907 Heidsieck & C° Monopole vintage ranked among the most popular Champagne wines on the great transatlantic passenger liners of those times.

The "Pégase" discovers Mercier Champagne

Just then I saw the captain’s weapon spring to his shoulder and track a moving object through the bushes. A shot went off, I heard a faint hissing, and an animal dropped a few paces away, literally struck by lightning.

That animal was an Enhydra, a huge sea otter that posed a serious threat to Captain Nemo and his crew ... Such tales of derring-do were music to the ears of buccaneering Champagne producer Eugène Mercier, a man whose ballooning exploits were second only to Phileas Fogg! Imagine his delight were he still alive today and learned of the discovery made by the "Pégase". And what was that exactly? Nothing less than six bottles of Mercier Champagne buried in the murky depths off the coast of Normandy.

The lyrically-named Pégase was a French Navy minesweeper, which happened to come across the exact resting place of a German ship that had been sunk in World War II. All that remained of it now was a pitiful wreck lying at a depth of 30 metres off the coast of Saint-Valéry-en-Caux in Normandy. Concealed inside were objects of every description: a rubber glove, an oxygen cylinder valve, a life jacket and – lo and behold, what have we here? Six bottles of Champagne! The case was recovered by divers on their three hundredth foray inside the ship and within moments the lucky man had popped the cork, displaying the Champagne’s (unencrypted) credentials for all to see: "Mercier 1937".
The find was a resounding legacy for the adventurous Eugène Mercier, whose spirit will forever live on at Champagne Mercier.

A subtle hint of mocha

It was this same appetite for adventure that decided the divers to send two of the six bottles back to base (Champagne Mercier in Epernay) for immediate tasting. Imagine the excitement! Here was a wine that had just woken up after being asleep for 50 years. It was like something out of Sleeping Beauty. What untold treasures lay in store for the lucky tasters? What sensual delights would these wines reveal? In the event, if one of the wines was a disappointment, the other fulfilled all expectations. Here was a wine that flowed like nectar, its deep, golden colour unfolding in ripples of intensity. Rings of tiny bubbles danced around the glass as if inviting the wine to stir from its long slumbers. The nose unfurled to reveal a subtle whiff of mocha, with just a hint of roasted almonds ...

An impression of sweetness on the palate ended on a slightly acidulous sensation, with citrus to the fore.
Who could have guessed this was a wine dating from 1937? Its youthfulness, bubbles and coffee-like aromas were enough to deceive even the most seasoned connoisseur ... The House sent six magnums to the divers, not so much for retrieving the bottles as for sending them back for tasting and making this great moment happen. Because in the end nothing can be more gratifying than the well-placed pride that comes from belonging to a great Champagne House that has just received such a stirring endorsement of its unwavering commitment to quality. That legacy however carries with it a duty not to disappoint.

Champagne and great adventure

Mercier cellar-master Alain Parenthoën then decided to take the investigation a step further by organising a comparative tasting of the salvaged bottle and a 1937 vintage from the Mercier wine library. This is where the House’s finest vintages are set aside for posterity — just a few bottles from a succession of glorious years including the fabulous 1923 and 1934 vintages.

Laurence Mercier, Eugène’s great-great-granddaughter, was of course invited. It was a thrilling experience, she said: "extremely moving, full of magic and mystery" ... The salvaged bottle was covered with seashells, the other was not, but the wine itself tasted virtually identical. Same hint of mocha, same bittersweet impression of citrus. The resemblance was uncanny. Then there was the wine’s fruit-driven palate — a burst of pure emotion that left no doubt as to this bottle’s superlative credentials. Cellar-master Alain Parenthoën could only marvel at the outcome, wondering aloud how they had managed to achieve such outstanding results given the comparatively limited expertise in those days.

The wine’s formidable aging capacity says a lot about the exceptional quality of the Mercier 1937 vintage at the outset — proving that excellence will always stand the test of time. What is true for fine jewels is also true for fine wine: only the very best get better with age.
Binet Champagne recovered by the Volturnus
"At 10 yards and a half deep, we walked amidst a shoal of little fishes of all kinds, more numerous than birds of the air; and also more agile ...".

Captain Nemo operated in an aquarium-like environment teeming with life and colour — the self-same environment that served as a resting place for two bottles of Binet Champagne, sole survivors of a batch of nine dating from 1919. An incredible sunken treasure trove on Denmark’s seabed ...

Let us now follow the English supply steamer "Volturnus" as it leaves the port of London on 27 October 1919 loaded with provisions for the British fleet in Denmark. At 4am on 11 November the ship hits a mine left over from World War I and sinks 30 metres to the bottom off the coast of Skagen (the Danish St Tropez at the northernmost point of the country). Happily all of the crew survives but the cargo (including those bottles of Binet Champagne) goes down, lock, stock and barrel.

A diving expedition in Denmark

Now wind the clock forward to late June 1997 and we find five members of a diving club in Skagen exploring the wreck of the Volturnus. Items previously salvaged from the ship include cutlery, crockery, glassware, the odd pair of boots — items typical of the assorted debris that littered the seafloor in the late 20th Century. So imagine the divers’ surprise when they stumble across nine bottles of Champagne! The "little fishes of all kinds, more numerous than birds of the air" had long since put paid to the labels but the corks remained intact and serve to identify the Champagne House and the vintage: "Binet Fils & Cie -1911".

The divers will never forget their momentous discovery, which was extensively covered by the local press, starting with the "Skagen Avis", then the Danish daily broadsheet "Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten", and it even made international news ... The divers were saluted for their prowess but there was also much talk about the implications of the discovery. British troops, said the press, must have been uncommonly fond of Champagne to arrange for nine bottles to be shipped out to their Danish base. And not just any Champagne, mind you, but Binet Champagne, made by a House founded in 1849 that was once a major exporter of Champagne to such distant places as India.

Treasure and emotion

So it was that these nine precious bottles served to revive Champagne Binet’s globetrotting past in the public imagination. Their survival for so long under the sea was a tribute to the ideal storage conditions provided by their cool, dark resting place. But it also added to their magic, reminding people that this highly coveted wine was once shipped across the high seas in often perilous conditions. Proof if proof were needed that a Champagne bottle, securely fastened by its wire cage, is tough enough to withstand any amount of adventure. So in the end this is a story about Champagne wine in general and the appellation that produces it — a tale of the extraordinary lengths to which people are prepared to go, all for the sake of a few moments of heady bliss!
Michel Hanser-Schaffhauser

A treasure trove of Champagne under the sea

2004 (centenary of the Entente Cordiale signed by Britain and France in 1904): twenty thousand bottles of Champagne are found in the sunken French cargo ship "Le Seine" at a depth of 20,000 leagues under the sea ...
Divers from Folkestone Diving Club say the stash lies at the bottom of the English Channel. Swiss tasting expert, Susie Barrie, describes the wine as "Adorable, with an amber colour and that much sought-after flavour that characterises old Champagne."
-  1955: A Soviet container collides with the French ship "La Seine" on its way to England, sending the ship and its consignment of bubbly to the bottom of the sea. Champagne, like all great wines, gets better with age but just how well the wine will taste after 50 years immersed in salt water is anybody’s guess ...