In August of 1985, a US Navy-sponsored expedition lead by marine archeologist Robert Ballard was struggling to find the wreck of the Titanic. Ballard and his crew were given twelve days to sweep a potential resting place of more than 150 square miles using new technology that allowed for exploration below 10,000 feet. One week into the expedition, Ballard and his crew propitiously stumbled across the Titanic’s “debris field,” a large trail of debris left by the ship as it broke in half and sank to the ocean floor.
The debris field contained millions of objects: suitcases, clothes, bathtubs, jugs, bowls, hand mirrors and numerous other personal effects. One item that caught Ballard’s eye in particular were fully intact wine bottles, which appeared to still contain their corks.
The number of wine bottles scattered around the Titanic—an ocean liner whose main appeal was its luxury—isn’t a surprise. The ship’s first class passengers enjoyed extremely elaborate, 10-course dinners, with accompanying wine pairings for each dish. Corks retreived from the wreck indicate that Champagne from Moët and Heidsieck & Co. was popular on board.
A man holds a lunch menu recovered from the Titanic.
Champagne-style wines were favoured on the Titanic because they could be easily chilled after being brought onto the ship. Bordeaux wines were less favoured because the rumble from the enormous steam engines could dislodge sediment from inside the bottle. To slake the thirst of its first class passengers, the Titanic held more than 12,000 bottles of wine in its cellar.
This begs the question: if photographs indicate that the wreck of the Titanic holds thousands of sealed, unbroken bottles, could some of that wine still be drinkable?
It’s difficult to say, mainly because samples from the wreck are few and far between. Ballard himself refused to take bottles of wine from the wreck, claiming that doing so would be tantamount to grave robbing:
“Maritime collectors around the world would have paid thousands of dollars for a piece of the ship… How I would have loved a bottle of Titanic champagne for my own wine cellar. But from all our discussions it became clear that the Titanic has no true archaeological value… Recovering a chamber pot or a wine bottle or a copper cooking pan would really just be pure treasure-hunting.”
Bottles claiming to be from the wreck of the Titanic do occasionally appear at auctions, but the ship’s extensive wine collection remains mostly undisturbed on the ocean floor.
Experts taste wine from a 151-year-old US Civil War shipwreck at an event in Charleston, South Carolina. Attendees claimed the wine tasted like “crab water, gasoline, salt water, vinegar, with hints of citrus and alcohol.”
If other wrecks are any indication, however, there is some hope. A shipment of wines that lay buried in a wreck on the ocean floor for 138 years off the coast of Georgia was retrieved and tasted by divers in 1979, who described the wines as “incredibly good” (the collection contained 1839 red Bergundy of Cru quality, 1834 Port and 1830 Madeira).
In 2010, Finnish divers discovered several crates of champagne and beer from a sunken ship that had been at the bottom of the Baltic Sea for nearly 200 years. When changing pressures caused one of the champagne corks to pop out of its bottle, the divers tasted the wine and found that it was still drinkable.
“Bottles kept at the bottom of the sea are better kept than in the finest wine cellars,” Champagne expert Richard Juhlin explains. If experts like Juhlin are right, if there is anywhere wine could survive for 100 years, it’s the bottom of the ocean.
Perhaps the closest comparison we have to the Titanic is the RMS Republic, another massive White Star ocean liner which sunk in 1909 when it collided with the SS Florida. A key difference between the two wrecks is that the Republic experienced relatively little loss of life, making salvage efforts less prone to accusations of grave robbing.
Expeditions to the Republic have found a similarly large collection of wines: Moët & Chandon and Dom Ruinart champagnes; several Mosels, other white wines of uncertain origin, and some Bordeaux. When divers from a 1987 expedition opened a bottle of 1898 Moët & Chandon Champagne from the wreck, they found the wine to be “effervescent” and “wonderful.” When they sent some of the bottles to the New York office of Christie’s auction house, however, the wines were found to be malodorous and unpleasant.
“The bottles they brought us were debris,” Robert Maneker of Christie’s told The Wine Spectator in 1987. Experts at the auction house determined that the wine bottles were nothing more than a collection of “curiosities,” like “shrunken heads,” and said that newspaper reports estimating that the bottles could be worth up to $4,000 were “absolutely rubbish.”
If past shipwrecks are any indication then, the Titanic’s wine collection could have met a variety of fates. Fluctuations in temperature, bacteria and water pressure could have removed the seals of the bottles completely. Seepage might also have slowly replaced the original contents of the bottles with saltwater. Or perhaps some of the Titanic’s wine collection lies on the ocean floor still intact, after more than a century of deep sea cellaring, still waiting to be tasted. ♦