A ship sinks, and what remains? Bubbly bottles of Champagne

Every sentient being is no doubt already aware that this month marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. As Daniel Mendelsohn recently noted in The New Yorker, a historian once remarked, “The three most written-about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War and the Titanic.” 

I enjoy sailing and read a lot of maritime history, yet for some reason I have never been a true Titanic enthusiast. I can’t name the ship’s captain, and I seem to be one of a few people on the planet who hasn’t seen James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film. 

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In fact, I’ve been suffering from a spell of Titanic fatigue as a result of all the media attention surrounding the anniversary. 

But there is one aspect of the tragedy I’ve always found compelling: the fate of the 1,000 bottles of wine listed in the liner’s manifest. 

Since the shipwreck was discovered in 1985, I’ve watched with interest to see if any of those bottles somehow endured the vessel’s violent breakup and two-mile descent to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. And if any were found intact, what would become of their contents? Given that wine is alive, would the search yield any survivors?

Indeed, salvagers did find whole bottles of Champagne. Because Champagne bottles are made of thick glass to house their contents under pressure, they are the most likely bottles to withstand the pressure of the ocean’s depths. 

At a 10-course dinner at the Hong Kong luxury hotel Hullet House this past weekend, guests got a taste of one of the Titanic’s own sparkling wines, a recovered vintage 1907 Heidsieck & Co. Monopole. (The dinner, based on a menu from the Titanic’s first-class dining room, cost $15,000 per person.)

There has been no public word yet about how the wine tasted. But in an odd shipwreck coincidence, we might have a pretty good idea. 

In 1916 a Swedish freighter, Jönköping, was chartered to deliver 10,000 bottles of Cognac, 17,000 barrels of Burgundy and 3,000 bottles of Champagne to the Imperial Court of Russia’s Czar Nicholas II. A German U-boat torpedoed the ship, but a majority of the bottles remained intact in the icy water. In 1998, 2,000 bottles of the Champagne were salvaged from the wreckage. The brand and vintage? 1907 Heidsieck & Co. Monopole.

Heidsieck’s exports director at the time, Laurent Davaine, said, “The Champagne still shows an amazing balance and a beautiful golden hue with the effervescence still present.”

The water pressure worked perfectly to help the corks stay in place and keep the effervescence inside the bottles. Lying in complete darkness at a constant temperature of 35 degrees for 82 years made for perfect cellaring conditions.

If you are inclined to commemorate the sinking of the Titanic, I suggest doing so with a bottle of Heidsieck. You don’t need a bottle of the 1907 to get in the spirit. Try the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top Brut Non-Vintage ($36.99). It is straw in color, with green highlights. The nose is strong and generous, woody and slightly spicy, characterized by a rich blend of toasty and buttery aromas. It has an unreserved palate and is crisp and austere.


Derek M. LaVallee, director of public relations and public affairs at Kemp Goldberg Partners and a certified wine buff, can be reached at dereklavallee@hotmail.com.