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What it's Like to Sip a Century-Old Champagne From a Shipwreck

Illustration by Christina Song

I’ve had the great fortune to taste some of the world’s most amazing wines, from the legendary pre-phylloxera 1865 Château Lafite Rothschild to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s 1923 vintage. Older, classic wines are amazing in their own right and offer much more than a price tag: I get to peek into the past, to taste history.

The emotion the experience evokes and the excitement I feel are almost as powerful as the taste itself. Last fall, I may have experienced the most impressive wine yet—a Champagne. It was certainly the rarest.

In 1916, a German U-boat sank the Swedish freighter Jönköping as it was carrying spirits to the imperial court of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. The Germans commandeered the vessel in the Gulf of Finland and escorted all of the sailors off the ship before sinking it with a torpedo. For 80 years, the ship lay at the bottom of the sea, 63 meters deep—a depth that happens to be the perfect resting place for a bottle of Champagne, with six atmospheres of pressure (the same as inside the bottle) at constant near-freezing temperatures, undisturbed and shielded from any source of light. When the ship was discovered in 1997, sources say that fewer than 2,000 bottles were recovered, and even fewer were in salable condition.

Yes, this was the famous 1907 Heidsieck & Co. Monopole Diamant Bleu “Shipwrecked” Champagne.

One evening last fall, during a small private tasting of unrelated wines, our host surprised us with this amazing aperitif. Chills ran down my spine, and the hair on my arms stood on end. I was actually going to get to taste this legendary—if not mythical—wine. I Googled the cost ($275,000 per bottle, both at auction and at The Ritz-Carlton, Moscow), nearly fell out of my chair, and tried not to come off like a giddy child or an unworthy soul accidentally invited to a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The wine had intense aromas of gunflint and black rifle powder mixed with a briny note like roasted oysters. Then there were notes of graham cracker, burnt lemon oil, and flamed oranges. Massive flavors of caramelized bananas, burnt citrus, and kerosene provided an extremely long, salty finish. Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but I could taste the sea, the explosion, and the Champagne all at once—it was absolutely mind-blowing, with just a touch of bubbles remaining, so you knew it was Champagne.

Unless you happen to find yourself in a similar situation (I probably never will again), I suggest you experience this producer in a different way—and at a much lower price. The current vintage of this same wine, the 1996 Heidsieck & Co. Monopole Diamant Bleu, is available online for about $120.

To find a bottle Heidsieck's 1996 vintage, search for it at winesearcher.com.

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