Monday, July 19, 2010

Ancient spirits

It is one thing to try to replicate the ancient beer recipes of Egypt and China from the remnants found in tombs. It is quite another to find old liquid brews that can be authenticated and analyzed. But to find centuries-old drinkable spirits? Remarkable! It happened most recently when divers found intact bottles of old champagne in an old shipwreck, but it has happened before with both beer and wine...

The champagne (pictured) was found by Swedish diver Christian Ekström and team in 55M of water off the coast of Finland. The wreck contained 30 intact bottles containing a vintage from the 1780s described as amber-coloured and full of rich, mingled aromas. "There was a lot of ripe fruit, overtones of yellow raisins and plenty of tobacco aroma. This is something one dreams of. I'm very grateful that Christian came to ask my opinion. I still have a little left in my refrigerator which I keep going back to sniff!" says a sommelier, and a champagne expert says it almost certainly came from the House of Veuve Clicquot. Ekström describes it as "a very sweet champagne, with a tobacco taste and oak." It predates the 1825 Perrier-Jouet champagne opened in 2009 and characterized as having "notes of truffles, caramel and mushrooms," "addictive, with a complex flavour of figs," and even with "a slight nose of the sea."

The oldest drinkable beer on record is 1869 Ratcliff Ale found in 2006 in a cache of 250 vintage bottles stashed in the vaults of Worthington's White Shield brewery in Burton-on-Trent, U.K. It was tasted by a connoisseur who reports, "It's amazing that beers this antique can still taste so delicious. Established wisdom would say beers this old should taste of vinegar, damp rags and Mar-mite. Instead, many show flavours of raisins and sultanas, baked apple and honey. The oldest – the 1869 Ratcliff Ale – is bright and luminous like an ancient Amontillado sherry and has a meaty character like smoked partridge with hints of molasses. It's amazing it tastes this good after 137 years."

There are 2 contenders for the oldest drinkable wine. At the Graycliff Hotel and Restaurant in the Bahamas, they serve a 1727 Rudesheimer Apostelwein from Bremer Ratsfeller. The German wine was drawn off the cask in Bremen and bottled in the 1950s. At a medieval wine cellar in Strasbourg, France, which is now a wine museum, is a barrel that is still filled with wine from the year 1472. It has been tasted 3 times: in 1576, in 1716, and when the city was liberated in 1944. No record of whether the bouquet was sweet or sour...

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