shipwrecked wine

Hidden depths: Uncorking the mysteries of shipwrecked wine

Arden's wine expert Stuart George gives us the lowdown on the fine wines discovered deep beneath the waves

At Arden Fine Wines we generally don’t recommend red wine with fish — but a recent purchase might just make us reconsider.

In May 2019 we acquired an unknown pre-1918 bottle of red wine from the wreck of a ship named the Kyarra. The 6,953-ton steel cargo and passenger luxury liner, built in Scotland in 1903 for the Australian United Steam Navigation Company, had been sailing for 10 years between Fremantle in Western Australia and Sydney in New South Wales, carrying cargo and passengers.

On 5 May 1918, Kyarra was sailing from Tilbury to Devonport to embark civilian passengers and take on full general cargo. She was sunk by UB-57 near Swanage, Dorset, on 26 May 1918.

shipwreck wines
The sunken Australian hospital ship Kyarra in port in Sydney, December 1914

A member of the Kingston and Elmbridge British Sub-Aqua Club discovered Kyarra’s wreck in the late 1960s. The wreck, which lies one mile off Anvil Point, remains popular with divers. But what was discovered inside made it a point of great interest to oenophiles, too. The Kyarra was loaded with perfume, newspapers, Worcestershire sauce — and thousands of bottles of wine.

The particular bottle that came into our ownership is of the Burgundy/Rhône style, with sloping shoulders. The dark green glass is extremely thick, with no mould seam visible — it’s one piece of glass, possibly made with a dip-mould. An empty bottle that we also obtained weighs about 2.5kg, which is heavier than a full bottle of champagne.

The cork in the empty bottle is intact and can be removed by hand but it has shrivelled, with no markings visible. The wine itself (not yet sampled), which has excellent ullage only 3cm below the cork, appears to have a thick, viscous quality.

"In theory deep water offers perfect condition for ageing wine: cool, dark and anaerobic"

Might it still be drinkable? In theory, deep water offers perfect conditions for ageing wine: cool, dark, and anaerobic. The temperature of ocean water decreases as depth increases so one can assume that sea-aged bottles have been living at extremely cold temperatures since 1918.

British coastal waters are generally very pure (hence lots of seafood), with low salinity, but this increases further out to sea, away from river estuaries; higher salinity means more worms and organisms that like to burrow into corks.

The Baltic has very low salinity, which is a major reason why bottles recovered from this part of the world — such as the 1907 Heidsieck champagne found in the shipwreck of the Swedish freighter Jönköping in the Gulf of Finland in 1998 — tend to be in such good condition. One might also compare the extraordinarily well-preserved wreck of the Vasa in Stockholm with that of the Mary Rose, which is much more damaged and eroded.

shipwreck wine

What’s more, the high pressure of deep water forces champagne corks to retain a tight seal — the water pressure counteracts the pressure inside the bottle. But with still wines, the pressure can force corks into the bottle.

Tidal currents invariably wash away paper labels and wax or tin/lead capsules, therefore exposing the cork to the sea and reducing the number of clues for the identity of the wines.

Provenance and authenticity is not an issue here. The major issue is condition and whether or not the wines are sellable. The most damaged bottles, where the corks have leaked and let in seawater, are nothing more than empty old wine bottles and therefore worthless. But bottles in good condition in which the wine might be drinkable have tremendous appeal.

shipwreck

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that a market has now developed for vinous adventurers looking to brave the depths below. Those prepared to tolerate the 100-metre dive and limited oxygen might look to Cookson Adventure to get their fix. The adventure company is currently preparing a trip to visit the “Project Mercury” wreck off the coast of Cornwall, where it hopes to recover bottles from a ship sunk – like the Kyarra – in 1918. Anyone signing up for the mission will receive a healthy stake of the bounty.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity to be a part of one of the most significant historical discoveries of the century,” says Adam Sebba, CEO of Cookson Adventures. “The rarity of such a cargo is unprecedented, and we’re waiting with baited breath to dive and see if we can recover the wine.”

It’s worth a dip, surely. Anyone can have a subterranean wine cellar. But it takes true decadence to keep one below the waves. Forget singing for your supper — it’s time to dive for your drink.

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