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Copyright © 1987 The Wine SpectatorThe Wine Spectator
Sept. 15, 1987
SECTION: News, 5
LENGTH: 1,236 words
HEADLINE: Divers Recover Sunken Treasure
Century-Old Bottles Lifted From Old Luxury Shipwreck
BYLINE: By Curt Anderson
BODY: How drinkable is a century-old Château Lafite-Rothschild that has lain for 78 years in freezing waters on the ocean-floor?
A daring deep-sea operation launched by an American group to explore the wreckage of the sunken luxury liner R.M.S. Republic 50 miles off Nantucket, Mass., has discovered 5,000 to 7,000 bottles of pre-1900 wine.
Another sunken wine cellar may also be waiting for a French diving crew that has begun to salvage the Titanic with the help of a minisubmarine. In their first explorations in July, the salvagers found thousands of artifacts, including wine bottles, scattered around the hull of the Titanic, which sank 75 years ago off the coast of Newfoundland after hitting an iceberg.
The fully-stocked 600-foot Republic was 14 hours out of New York harbor on a two-month Mediterranean cruise with 500 passengers and a crew of 400 aboard when it was struck by another ship January 23, 1909, and sunk.
The American divers exploring the Republic in July were searching for a gold coin treasure, estimated to be worth between $400 million and $1.6 billion, when they found the underwater wine stash 280 feet below the surface. They collected a few bottles, including a couple of bottles of 1898 Moët & Chandon Champagne and other wines believed to have been bottled in Europe in the last century.
The salvage ship's crew promptly popped the cork of one of the 1898 Champagnes and found the 89-year-old bubbly "effervescent" and "wonderful," said Michael Gerber, chief financial officer of the Sub-Ocean Salvors International of Tampa, Fla., the firm conducting the search.
But three bottles retrieved from the Republic were inspected by the New York office of Christie's, the auction house, which determined that the bottles had suffered seepage and that the wine was malodorous and unpleasant.
"The bottles they brought us were debris," said Roberta Maneker of Christie's in reference to the 1898 Moët & Chandon, an unidentified Bordeaux and a third bottle that appeared to be a Mosel. "These bottles were sort of floating free, so they would be the most disturbed. It's hard to know what the condition of the other bottles is."
Michael Broadbent, director of the wine department of Christie's in London, said he is convinced that the Republic's bounty is nothing more than a collection of curiosities, like "shrunken heads." He called newspaper reports estimating that some of the bottles may be worth $4,000 "absolutely rubbish."
"The cork is likely to have been impregnated over a period of time and therefore the wine too," he said. "If the wine's in the cellar, the cork loses its elasticity and air gets in. Well, if air can get in, water can get in."
But Cornelius Ough, professor of enology at the department of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis, said whether the wines are still in good condition might depend on the type of capsule protecting the cork.
"If they have a good thick wax seal they probably are in good condition. At that temperature - 40 degrees - they'd probably last a long time."
Lead capsules are more vulnerable, because "even a pinhole in the lead would allow water through the cork," he said.
The divers said they found the wines resting under a blanket of silt in 40-degree water. The salvagers believe that the silt may have helped protect the seal and the corks.
Officials for the salvage operation remain hopeful that the other wines on the shipwreck will be in good condition because most of it is stored in cases in the hip's pantry.
"There are some Rothschilds down there," said Gerber, who added the crew thinks some of the whites are "Austrian Mosels."
"Even bottles with bad wine are valuable because they were on the Republic," Gerber said. "If we have a bottle of Bordeaux in good condition, a magnum would probably sell for $5,000 to $10,000," he added optimistically.
Christie's Broadbent had his doubts, stressing that even if bottles were retrieved from the more famous Titanic, they would be worth only " a few hundred pounds" a bottle if they had gone bad. "No one in his right mind is going to pay hugh sums of money for wine like that," he added.
It may be as long as two years before the wine on the Republic is delivered from the deep and hauled to the surface for inventory and evaluation, said Gerber.
Documents of the ship's cargo are missing so officials are unable to ascertain the number of bottles or specific wines aboard the Republic when she began her ill-fated cruise.
Since the labels have washed off the bottles, divers have had to identify the cellar by reading the corks through bottlenecks and collecting corks from shattered bottles.
The Sub-Ocean Salvors International was established in April after $2 million was raised from 50 limited partners. The expedition purchased a 280-foot salvage vessel, Inspector, set sail in June ans was over the site on June 18. A one-man sub is being used to explore the ship, which has broken into two pieces.
James Suckling contributed to this report from London.
By James Suckling
The ocean floor may be as good as some of the world's great cellars for aging premium wines.
A collection of wines that lay on the ocean floor for nearly 138 years off the Georgia coast were tasted in 1979 and described as "incredibly good."
The wines came from a British sailing ship that sank near the mouth of the Savannah Channel in 1840. Professional diver Bill Kinsey salvaged a few cases of various wines in about 30 feet of water in 1978. He later auctioned some of the wines in the Heublein Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines in the United States.
During the 1979 and 1980 Heublein auction, 10 full bottles and three half bottles were auctioned off by Michael Broadbent, director of wine sales for Christie's in London.
Although the bottles were unmarked, they included what was believed to be some 1839 red Bergundy of Cru quality, 1834 Port and 1830 Madeira. The lowest bid was $200 for a bottle of the 1830 Madeira during the 1980 auction; the highest was $780 for a bottle of 1834 Port.
In the auction catalog, Heublein auction authorities described the wines as being in good and drinkable condition. Broadbent told The Wine Spectator recently that the Madeira he tasted was "in very good condition."
As in the case of the R.M.S. Republic, the wines salvaged off Savannah in 1978 had been buried in silt on the ocean floor.
The salvage company that recovered the bottles off the Georgia coast believed the sea water helped preserve the quality of the rare wines. The Heublein auction catalog also quoted the International Oceanographic Foundation's magazine as saying that "things such as corks, glass, wood fiber, etc., can be saved by the natural preserving action of salt water and may have an amazing life span once immersed . . ."