The Sinking of the Taittinger

Norwich Bulletin - 1998


No, it’s not a spelling mistake.

Last November a large container ship split in half during a storm. While being towed in heavy seas, one half of the ship sank. There were no human casualties. But the half that sank contained wine destined for the States. Most of the wine was non vintage Taittinger Champagne, and clarets from Bordeaux.

The event made me muse on future attempts to retrieve the wines. If the spiraling wine prices for Bordeaux is anything to go by, at some point in time, it must be financially feasible to plumb the dark and murky depths to salvage this viniferous booty. And the red wines that succumbed to the tempest were from the acclaimed 1995 Bordeaux vintage.

Its mid Twenty First Century. I can see a consortium of wine fanatics commissioning a search vessel to hunt and locate the vessel. Video cameras will be sent down to slowly pan the broken spilled containers picking up a Margaux here, a Le Pin there and a broken bottle of Petrus forlornly shattered on the rocks. The labels, of course will be long gone, but the corks display the legendary names. And the cool of the ocean has preserved the precious liquid.

I can see a television special.

After painstaking retrieval, the wines, which even in their present state are now worth over $100,000 a bottle are carefully re-corked and re-labeled.

With a deal that is breathtaking in its audacity, the wines are offered for sale to be drunk on the replica of the H.M.S. ‘Titanic’ as it relives, again, and yet again, it’s fateful last voyage.

I can see a million dollar film deal.

I’ve been reading about old wine being retrieved from beneath the sea. It’s mainly been found in containers called amphora recovered from the wrecks of ancient Greek and Roman vessels in the Mediterranean. Chromatographic analysis of samples of wine found in amphora taken from the famous Madrague de Giens wreck found off Toulon, France showed a combination of tannins and other organic chemicals similar to that found in modern claret or Bordeaux wine. The wines are of course totally undrinkable being much dliuted and decomposed. After all these wines are over two thousand years old!

But there is something nostalgic and fascinating about retrieving such things from the past.

In Pompeii, or the site of where the Roman town of Pompeii once stood, there has been another interesting discovery. Excavations have found the site of an old vineyard. It’s at the back of the site of what was a tavern. The tavern and vineyard belonged to a man called Eusino. His world and that of the town of Pompeii world was silenced in 79 A.D. by the ashes of a volcanic eruption.

Under the auspices of Carlo Mastroberardino, a wine maker from the Campania region, vines are being planted in the original vineyard. The charred remains of the roots show the exact location of the plantings.

But what vines should be planted?

The Mastroberardino family has been making wine since the Sixteenth century. They have been instrumental in rescuing and reviving ancient grapes. Several grape types long thought to be extinct were found growing in the countryside not far from Pompeii by Carlo’s grandfather. Fiano, Aglianco and Greco di Tufo are all old grape types that are now thriving and producing unique and wonderful wines. It is presumed that similar varieties were the ones that would have been cultivated in Eusino’s vineyard. Eventually, as an experiment, wine will be made from these grapes using old vinification techniques

But an even more exciting discovery was made recently in the ashes of Pompeii.

During the excavation fifteen grape seeds were found. They are not alive or viable to be grown. But using contemporary DNA procedures the secret of the grape types used in Pompeii will be narrowed even further.