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Wine at sea

Jan 1, 2003

When divers from the Netherlands Institute for Ship and Underwater Archeology were investigating the wreck of an unidentified 17th century Dutch warship off the north coast of Holland last July, they most certainly were not expecting to find an intact, three-century-old bottle of wine amid the detritus.

European wine commentators and connoisseurs were in a perfect frenzy when news of the 300-year-old find was announced. At the August uncorking of the ancient, heavy, green bottle, a specialist panel agreed that the contents tasted remarkably good, considering the wine's unconventional storage location at the bottom of the sea. But they did whine a bit about its unpleasant "nose," which apparently was reminiscent of the sulfide stench a sailor might encounter downwind of a South American oil refinery, at low tide.

Wine has been around for at least 10 millennia and has been going to sea with mariners, as both victual and cargo, for at least the last 4,000 years. In fact, Genesis, Chapter IX, reports that the first thing that celebrated yachtsman and zoologist, Noah, did after running his Ark aground on Mount Ararat, was to set about planting a vineyard. By the time the ancient Greeks were setting course for southern Italy, wine was a staple beverage at sea. And at sea wine kept considerably better than water, which after only a few weeks would be host to all sorts of disagreeable flora and fauna. And besides, wine was a good deal more enjoyable to drink anyway!

In Roman times wine was one of the most widely traded commodities in the Mediterranean. Cargo vessels laden with wine amphoras - large, tapered, two-handled clay jars with narrow necks, sealed with cork and covered over with a sealer to protect the nearly seven gallons of wine each held - would sail as far as remoteBritannia to supply expatriate Romans with a little taste of home and civilization. And shipping wine by sea was cheap. It cost about the same to ship one amphora the entire length of the Mediterranean as it did to transport it less than 100 miles on land. It was for this reason that most vineyards were situated along coastlines providing good access to the sea.

When Madeira vineyards began producing and exporting wines as far as India and Japan, shippers noticed a very interesting phenomena. It was common practice to return all unsold wine to the port of Funchal at Madeira. When these "traveled" wines were finally opened and drunk, their flavor was found to be much superior to the "untraveled" wines. Somehow the hot temperatures of the equator and the rough passage around the Cape of Good Hope, twice, worked their magic on the precious contents of the barrels stowed deep in the holds of cargo ships.

Perhaps that unfortunate Dutch captain of three centuries ago was simply carrying his store of wine on board in hopes its quality would improve with a bit of abuse at sea. Little could he have suspected that his carefully stowed wine would become the center of such scrutiny, almost 300 years after his ship slipped beneath the waves.


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