"Still alive and very drinkable". The wine beneath Port Phillip Bay

Heritage Victoria

The barque William Salthouse left the port of Montreal in June of 1841. Laden with Champagne, Muscat and Sauternes, it sailed half-way around the world to the heads of Port Phillip Bay. There the ship struck a submerged rock, and was eventually wrecked near Pope’s Eye - inside the Bay, but short of its destination. The William Salthouse and its cargo sank and were forgotten, until their rediscovery in 1982. 

Archaeologists excavated the site in 1983 and 1991, uncovering wicker baskets packed with champagne and bottles of wine in pine boxes stamped with the name of the French town, Cette (Sète).

Chemical testing could not reveal much about the wines of the William Salthouse. Instead, it was wine experts that helped answer questions about style and the differences between modern wines and those of the 1840s.

Professional wine tasters from France and Australia were invited to try the William Salthouse wines. They were encouraged to discuss and argue about the style and the origins of the wine. Their tasting notes were recorded.

Dessert or table wine
Dr Tony Jordan, Domaine Chandon: "Colour: Yellow, brown; Nose: Smells like salt, smelly, odd, rotten butter, amyl; Palate: Old, salty, harsh." Peter Leske, Australian Wine Research Institute: "Colour: Olive tan; Nose: Phenolic, mushroomy, salty, earthy (taint); Palate: Salt! Grippy salty, stuffed"
Dessert wine
Dr Tony Jordan, Domaine Chandon: "Colour: Deep brown; Nose: Reduced fat, dried paint tins, glue; Palate: Vomit inducing, too much salt, sweet." Peter Leske, Australian Wine Research Institute: "Colour: Toffee brown with olive tints; Nose: Strong initial plastic, wax notes, biscuity toffee oloroso behind; Palate: Very rich early palate taint notes mid palate, phenolic etc. then long sweet back finish, drying finish, spirit evident, raisined muscat." James Halliday, Coldstream Hills: "Colour: Dark; Nose: Varnish, extremely unpleasant;  Palate: Grossly contaminated"
Peter Leske, Australian Wine Research Institute: "Colour: Dull, brown, amber; Nose: Iodine, phenolic, grapefruit, candied peel sweet, raisined; Palate: Sherrified, sweet, nutty, toffee, full, slight tannic lower palate. Palate not as complex as first, drier, lacking depth." Richard Geoffroy, Moet et Chandon: "Colour: Amber; Nose: Roses lime cordial, nutty, cream sherry, rancid, mushroom; Palate: Sweeter than previous, dry. Champagnes of the time heavily pinot noir. The process not as careful as now. Could be astringent and high acid. Astringent on the finish."
James Halliday, Coldstream Hills: "Colour: Quite brown;  Nose: Madeirized, but no contamination; Palate: Soft, slightly furry, mousy finish, moderately sweet." Robert Geddes, Rosemount Estate: "Colour: Developed brown, dirty, sediment; Nose: Some floral confectionary, linseed, resinous, Rutherglen tokay, “mousiness” may be present; Palate: High sugar, 10-11% alcohol, less fit, mousiness maybe, bitterness slight like old wood finish, low acid?"
Dr Tony Jordan, Domaine Chandon: "Colour: Very good, bright gold. Full; Nose: Strange smelly, mushroom, lime. Not pleasant. Fatty, candles?; Palate: Sweet but balanced by salt, tang at the edge of tongue? Slightly phenolic. Mushroom going over to lime, not watery, nice round middle, sweet presumes sweetness. Tastes like modern little wine that has had a bit of skin contact. No worse than that. Tang on side of tongue – presume it is salt. Don’t find it offensive. Aging of red wines only takes 30-40 years for tannin to drop out." Robert Geddes, Rosemount Estate: "Colour: Gold, bright, excellent colour, slight green; Nose: Brine, citrus, lime, iodine, sea tang, honeyed;  Palate: Sweet front, nice flavours, sweet medium, late bitterness but mild. Drinkable."
James Halliday, Coldstream Hills: "Colour: Orange. Quite bright. Clear; Nose: Some salty aromas, sharp, flinty hint of gunpowder and rubber; Palate: Plenty of sweet fruit and residual sugar, saltiness evident on the very finish. Touch of cumquat, still alive and very drinkable." Richard Geoffroy, Moet et Chandon: "Colour: Orange, slight amber hue; Nose: Sharp, gamey, flinty diesel, mineral. Odd; Palate: Sweet then dry, underlying hint of strawberries. Middle palate is gentle sweet, end is dry. Structure still exists, very very sweet." 
The champagne on the William Salthouse was from Ay, a village in the Champagne region of France. It was made by Gosset, the oldest Champagne house in the world, which is still in operation. The salt and years under the sand seem to have had little impact on these wines. This may have been because the bottles were corked under pressure, and so able to withstand the intrusion of the seawater. They appear to be sweeter than modern wines, and still drinkable. The dessert wines were less fortunate. They were heavily tainted. While still recognisably sweet, they were also “vomit inducing” and “stuffed”. So who were the customers for this French wine? Port Phillip’s population was growing fast, and while some struggled to find enough to eat; others were celebrating land sales with champagne lunches. It was so popular that the empty bottles littered the streets, posing a threat to the unwary pedestrian. According to legend, cairns of champagne bottles marked the boundaries of early Melbourne. But did the crew of the William Salthouse ‘miss the boat’? Port Phillip was plunged into depression from 1841, and champagne sales went with them – not to recover until the gold rush of the 1850s.
Credits: Story

Thanks to Max Allen for advice

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