1679, a very good year for Madeira

Friday 10 December 1999 00:02

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have found the world's oldest bottle of wine, still sealed and with a very dry Madeira well preserved inside. It dates from around 1679 and was discovered during excavations of the wine cellar of a senior military officer based in east London.

Before the discovery, the oldest known surviving wine was a sweet Hungarian Tokay from the mid-1680s.

It is likely that the bottle wasshipped from Madeira to a British colony in the Caribbean and then back across the Atlantic to England. In the 17th century, Madeira wine was not fortified as it is now. The bottle was thrown away still sealed, indicating that the owner tried another bottle from the batch, did not like the taste and discarded it. Indeed an opened bottle was found close by with nearly all of the contents still in it.

The wine belonged to the Master Gunner of England, a senior artillery officer at the Tower of London. His house, in Spitalfields, east London, was demolished in the late 1670s and rebuilt in the early 1680s. During the demolition the old wine cellar was decommissioned and filled with earth.

To give experts a taste of history, tiny quantities of the wine were extracted with a hypodermic syringe through the cork. David Molyneux- Berry, a master of wine, said it was still fresh, with a strong nose - the aroma filled the room. It was "sherry-like to taste and bone-dry". Made from white grapes, it was "possibly unfortified Madeira, or from Greece or Portugal". The tall-necked, onion-shaped bottle held a pint and a half of a wine low in sugar and high in glycerol, suggesting a dry wine originating from a warm climate. Its high tartaric acid content has kept it fresh in the absence of a high sugar or alcohol level.

Mr Molyneux-Berry estimated the bottle's value as pounds 10-12,000 at auction.

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