- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 17, 2010

MARIEHAMN, FINLAND (AP) - Lime blossom, coffee, chanterelles. That’s what sommeliers detected sampling two centuries-old Champagne salvaged from the wreckage of a schooner at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The flavors that came to my mind were yeast, honey and _ I dare say _ a hint of manure.

The antique bubbly was barely bubbly after its long sleep in the cold and murky Nordic waters. But I couldn’t help feeling a thrill as I took a swill of history captured in that cloudy, golden liquid.

After all, I was drinking the world’s oldest Champagne _ or at least one of the oldest.

Connoisseurs haven’t been able to exactly date the 168 bottles raised from a shipwreck near the Aland islands, a windswept archipelago between Sweden and Finland. All they can say is they are from the early 19th century and astonishingly well-preserved.

I was among 20 people invited to the tasting in Mariehamn, the capital of the island group. We were given a choice between two bottles: a Veuve Clicquot or a Juglar, a now defunct champagne house.

“Easy,” I thought. “The Juglar doesn’t exist anymore. Got to try it.”

I raised a wine glass containing about an inch (a few centimeters) of champagne, tiny pieces of cork and very little fizz. A mushroomy flavor soon gave way to sweet notes of honey. It tasted like a sugary desert wine.

That’s not unexpected _ Champagne in the 19th century was a lot sweeter than it is today.

A standard bottle of Champagne now has about 9 grams of sugar, said Stephane Gerschel, a spokesman for Veuve Clicquot, founded in 1772. In the 1830s, the house used more than 100 grams of sugar per bottle _ and even that wasn’t sweet enough for some.

“In Russia, the trend was to serve Champagne with a spoonful of sugar,” Gerschel said.

Tastes have dramatically changed since then, and some contemporary Champagnes are now lauded for their bone-dry finish.

At least three of the 11 bottles opened so far from the Baltic wreckage have “with absolute certainty” been identified as Veuve Clicquot, the company said.

The bottles don’t have labels but experts could tell they were Veuve Clicquot by the branding of the corks, which featured a comet _ added to pay tribute to one that crossed the skies of Champagne in 1811 “and was rumored to be the cause of a harvest of remarkable quality.”

The shipwreck was discovered in July near the Aland Islands by a group of divers. Researchers say the ship was probably en route from northern Germany to the west coast of Finland with its prestigious cargo when it sank, sometime in the second quarter of the 19th century.

It’s not hard to grasp why it went down here. From the air these waters look almost unnavigable, littered with hundreds of skerries and islets, some barely breaking the black surface. One can only imagine the treacherous rocks hiding underneath.

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