As seafaring cargo, wine has been known to go down with the ship when disaster strikes. Such was the fate of a cache of bottles aboard the S.S. Libourne, a British steamer sunk by a German U-boat on Sept. 29, 1918, killing three members of the crew.
The Libourne remained lost off Britain’s southern coast until 2015, when it was discovered by 10994, a team consisting of naval historian and writer Ian Hudson, marine engineer Daniel Jayson and diver Luc Heymans, among others. But, as 10994 quickly learned, the wreck came with a surprising and potentially delicious (or not) twist: The ship was carrying a massive hoard of hooch, including bottles of Champagne (in both magnums and pint-sized bottles), white wine (possibly Sauternes), red wine (possibly Bordeaux), brandy and Benedictine liqueur. “The more we dug into it, the more we got quite excited about what we were seeing, which was a whole pile of wine,” Jayson told Wine Spectator. “We thought, ‘This is fascinating.’”
It’s difficult to estimate how many bottles the Libourne carried as it returned from delivering coal to Bordeaux, its final mission, as most of the booze was undeclared on the cargo manifest (unlike the ship’s hefty supply of gherkins). But the bottles number well into the thousands, possibly the hundreds of thousands.
While many are predictably in bad shape, Hudson and Jayson expect that a significant number are salvageable, even drinkable, meaning they could be worth tens of thousands of dollars, if previous shipwrecked wine rescues are any indication.
“For the Champagne, you can see the corks and the muselets—the cages—are protected,” Hudson said. “Some of [the still wine corks] are definitely intact; some of them have wax seals.”
10994’s overall strategy is to rescue and sell as many bottles as they can, donating a portion of proceeds to the Coastguard Association and Royal National Lifeboat Institution charities. “Ideally, we’d like to do a bulk salvage and bring anything up that was worth salvaging,” Hudson said. Simple plan, right?
Not so fast. As a guideline, the U.K. abides by the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which rules against disturbing underwater sites more than 100 years old. This means saving the bottles is a no-go per the U.K.’s Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport, as well as the Marine Management and Historic England organizations.
Hudson and Jayson argue that because the cargo is perishable and the Libourne has basically crumbled to nothing (largely thanks to English Channel fishing trawlers), the mandate doesn’t apply here. They hope to eventually receive dispensation, but there’s no knowing when that might be or how much longer any salvageable wines might survive. Even if permitted, 10994 would still need additional financing to continue its mission; the team is currently looking for backers.
“With the water depths involved, it’s a significant amount of money just to get there,” said Jayson. “You need a commercial basis, otherwise you can’t do it.” For now, curious wine and history lovers will have to settle for 10994's video of the underwater discovery.
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