With the millennium hype expected to hit a pitch fever soon, Swiss-based Caviar House has essentially cornered the world market for most of the 1907 Champagne bottles rescued from the remains of a Swedish schooner, the Joenkoeping, which sank in late 1916 off Finland's coast.
The purveyor of Iranian caviar bought 2,000 of some 2,500 salvaged bottles of Heidsieck Monopole Gout Americain 1907, which were lifted from the icy waters of the Baltic Sea last summer. The bottles had been destined for the court of Czar Nicholas II, but the boat was sunk by a German U-boat during World War I.
In October, Christie's auctioned 24 of the bottles in London. The average price was $2,488 a bottle, but one bottle sold for $4,068, a world record for a bottle of Champagne.
While a few dozen bottles have sold to private collectors around the world, Caviar House has spent a large sum to acquire the remaining cache of historic artifacts. Caviar House executive Jean-Pierre Esmilaire declined to give details, but said that the Scandinavian sellers used a price slightly below the average Christie's auction price for Caviar House; that would mean the chain paid somewhere around $3 million for the stock.
Caviar House is banking that the publicity about the Champagne will raise its international profile. The chain is acting on a hunch that some millennium revelers won't be able to pass up the thrill of opening a 92-year-old Champagne that has lain for 83 years at 212 feet below the surface of the sea in 39-degree water.
A bottle of the 1907 Champagne opened on Friday in Geneva was stinky but tasted surprisingly good for a wine that's been lying for decades in corrosive salt water. The cork was in perfect shape and didn't crumble when opened, although pliers were used to remove it. This took 10 minutes of patient squeezing and light pulling.
The cork smelled of seaweed, salt water and rotten eggs. Unfortunately, some of the same aromas of rotten eggs and sulfur permeated the nose of the bubbly. These notes were also present to some extent on the palate, although the sheer, sweet richness of the Champagne and some bacon, smoke, honey and nut flavors counterbalanced the flawed character. The finish was delicious.
Once I got over the first negative impression from the unpleasant aromas, I drank the wine with interest. The bubbles were amazingly effervescent for a shipwrecked Champagne, and the acidity combined with the sweetness to make it impressive, full-bodied, round and opulent.
The fresh acidity and sweet character are explained by the vintage and dosage. While 1907 is considered a poor, fairly unripe and acidic vintage in Champagne, such acidity has helped preserve the wine. The sweetness comes from a high dosage (a small amount of sweet wine added to a bottle of Champagne once the yeast sediment is removed), normal in a Heidsieck made in the "Gout Americain" ("American taste"). Such a style called for a dosage of at least 100 grams of sugar per liter and perhaps as high as 165 grams, which would make it twice as sweet as a typical Chateau d'Yquem, according to Christie's auction catalog. Tests showed that the salvaged bottles still had as much as 44 grams of sugar per liter left.
While the taste, texture, richness and lively bubbles are miraculous given the sea burial the bottles have endured, the stinky character on the cork and in the aromas should come as no surprise. I found the same aromas in shipwrecked Champagnes found off the East Coast of the United States 12 years ago.
In 1987, a salvage crew off Massachusetts recovered Champagne bottles from the R.M.S. Republic -- 78 years after it sunk 240 feet below the surface of the ocean.
Among the bottles were 1898 Champagnes from two houses, Moet & Chandon and Ruinart. The corks were in surprisingly good condition but smelled of sulphur and rotten eggs. The liquid was undrinkable, and Christie's refused at the time to auction the wines.
Clearly, the 1907 Heidsieck bottles are in much better condition and actually have a delicious mouthfeel. Still, some sea water seems to have seeped into the Champagnes. "We think about 4 to 5 percent of the bottles are sea water," said Esmilaire.
The 1907 Champagnes will each be sold in a wooden casing, accompanied by a 10-minute video of the dive and a booklet describing the wine's history and the salvage operation. The bottles will be available in Caviar House's 35 stores around the world -- including its airport shops at Heathrow, Frankfurt, and Geneva -- starting in June. Caviar House has no stores in the United States but plans to work out U.S. distribution soon. Meanwhile, orders can be placed by faxing the chain's international headquarters in Geneva at (011) 41 22 310 4450.
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