A treasure trove of two centuries-old, but perfectly drinkable, champagne has been found near a shipwreck 180 feet deep in the Baltic. It is thought that the champagne may belong to a consignment sent to the tsar of Russia by King Louis XVI just before the French revolution. If so, the bottles – at least 30 of them and possibly many more – could be worth millions of pounds at auction.
The wreck was located by Swedish divers just off the coast of Aaland, one of a chain of Swedish-speaking, self-governing islands which belong to Finland. A meeting will take place with local authorities today to decide who owns the 220-year-old bubbly and any other treasure that the ship may contain.
The champagne has been provisionally identified as made in the period 1772-1789 by the company that later became known as Veuve Clicquot. If so, the bottles – preserved in perfect conditions of cold and darkness – are the oldest known drinkable champagne, beating the 1825 Perrier-Jouët tasted by experts in London last year.
A local wine expert, Ella Gruessner Cromwell-Morgan, was asked to test one of the bottles by the diving team. She said it tasted "absolutely fabulous" – although sweet by modern standards – and had lost none of its fizz. "I still have a glass in my fridge and keep going back every five minutes to take a breath of it. I have to pinch myself to believe it's real."
Ms Cromwell-Morgan said the champagne was dark golden in colour and smelled of tobacco, but also grape and white fruits, oak and mead. "It is really surprising, very sweet but still with some acidity," she said.
A sample has been sent to Moët & Chandon for analysis. If the period 1772-1789 is confirmed, the wine comes from just before the period when the process of making sparkling wine was fully understood. Christian Ekstrom, the leader of the seven-strong Swedish diving team, said they had discovered the bottles close to the wreck of an unknown sailing ship on 6 July. The find was kept secret until the weekend and the exact location has not been disclosed.
"We have contacted (the winemakers) Moët & Chandon and they are 98 per cent certain that it is Veuve Clicquot," said Mr Ekstrom. "There is an anchor on the cork and they told me that (Clicquot) are the only ones to have used this sign."
Clicquot wine was first produced in 1772, but the name Veuve (or "widow") Clicquot was not used until the 1820s, when the wife of the founder's son inherited the firm. The first batch was not bottled for 10 years and production was disrupted by the French revolution in 1789. It is therefore believed that the ship must have foundered between 1782 and 1788. Ms Cromwell-Morgan said: "One strong supposition is that it's part of a consignment sent by King Louis XVI to the Russian Imperial Court. The makers have a record of a delivery which never reached its destination."
She said that late 18th century drinkable champagne could fetch €50,000 (£42,000) a bottle at auction. "But if it's really Louis XVI's wine, it could fetch several million."
Mr Ekstrom said: "I picked up one champagne bottle just so we could find the age of the wreck, because we didn't find any name or any details that would have told us the name of the ship ..." He and his diving colleagues were the first to taste the contents. "It was fantastic ... it had a very sweet taste ... and there were very small bubbles," he said.
Champagne in the modern style was first developed by the Veuve Clicquot house in the early 19th century but bubbly wine from the region was known, and prized, especially in Britain, from the 17th century.
At the time when the "Baltic bubbly" was shipped from France, 90 per cent of the wine produced in Champagne, 70 miles east of Paris, was pink and still.
By the mid-18th century, however, the British taste for fizzy wine, and the development of stronger glass bottles, had made the bubbly variant of champagne popular as an "aristocratic" drink in the courts of Europe.
Also in the ancient Drinks cabinet
A bottle of Glenavon Special Liqueur Whisky dating from the 1850s was sold at Bonhams auction house in 2006. Believed to be the oldest unopened bottle still in existence, It was brewed by the Glenavon distillery in Banffshire, in Scotland.
Wine (300 AD)
Two bottles of ancient Roman wine dating from the third century AD were uncovered in a tomb in the German city of Speyer, located beside the Rhine in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, in the 19th century. The wine can still be seen inside the bottles, and has been described as looking "silty". One of the bottles is partly filled with what is believed to be olive oil, a way of preserving wine before the invention of the cork.
Beer (7,000 BC)
Although no actual beer from this date has survived, America's Dogfish Head Brewery has used archeological data from ancient China to recreate a 9,000-year-old brew. Residues from jars at a neolithic site in Jiahu, in the Yellow River basin of Henan Province in central China, were analysed to create "Chateau Jiahu", a tipple of fermented chrysanthemum flowers , rice and honey.