To say that the Speyer wine bottle is old would be an understatement of epic proportions. The term vintage would not be accurate, either. In reality, this oenological gem holds the reigning title for the world’s most ancient unopened bottle of wine. Although it now lives in Speyer, Germany at the Historical Museum of the Palatinate ((Historische Museum der Pfalz), the Speyer wine bottle has, in fact, been gracing this planet with her presence for two straight millennia.
For some historical perspective, winemakers first ushered this mysterious libation into the universe somewhere near 323 AD, when Emperor Constantine the Great was busy ruling the Roman Empire. At some point in the 4th century, the bottle found itself entombed in a sarcophagus, where two upper-class Romans had planned to relish it, along with nearly a dozen of other liquor-filled containers, in the afterlife – an intoxicating embodiment of the multiple meanings of the word spirits – frozen in one succinct moment in time.
Buried deep for thousands of years, it emerged to see the light of day again in 1867 during an archaeological excavation in Speyer, Germany.
As an historical artifact, its value is self-explanatory. But would the oldest in-tact bottle of wine be fit for human consumption?
The short answer is both yes and no.
The Outside is Cool: But It’s What’s Inside that Counts
If you can’t go to Speyer, Germany anytime soon to see it with your own eyes, you might be wondering what the oldest unopened bottle of wine on earth looks like. Cylindrical with a long neck and a flat base, the Speyer wine bottle stands at about 7.9 inches (20 centimeters) tall and highlights rather advanced craftsmanship in ancient glassmaking techniques.
Inside, you can spy approximately 1.5 liters of murky, rather suspect-looking liquid, replete with swirls of dark colors and sediment. Remarkably, even after all this time, the oldest unopened bottle of wine still contains remnants of its original content. Its astonishing preservation can be attributed to an innovative Roman combination of olive oil and wax. As the museum explains, ancient Romans adopted a clever technique of pouring olive oil into their wine bottles to block out the air, then added a thin layer of wax over the mouths as a seal. These techniques worked in tandem to effectively preserve this well-fated wine within its bottle for all of these centuries. Kaiser’s chemists analyzed the bottle during World War I and identified the liquid as wine made from white grapes. It’s hard to believe there was anything left for experts to research at all.
But how would these grapes taste today after so…much..aging? Could we really serve this at a dinner party to delight and amuse our friends and fellow history aficionados? While we probably could, that does not mean we should.
Aging Like a Fine Wine
We always hear that wine improves with age. This can certainly be the case – especially with high-quality red wines and even some whites. Bordeaux blends, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, for example, are prime examples. French red blends boast excellent aging potential, with 10-30 years adding complexity from the combination of grape varieties. Similarly, Nebbiolo, found in Barolo and Barbaresco wines from Italy, is another excellent candidate – developing into elegant, aromatic wines over 15-30 years. With proper aging, certain tannins in red wines interact with other compounds, thereby softening the wine’s mouthfeel and mellowing its flavors.
Among white wines, Riesling stands out for its aging potential. High-quality Riesling from regions like Germany or Alsace can age for 10-30 years or even longer. High acidity and balanced sugar levels enable this versatile white to develop complex flavors of honey, petrol, and dried fruits with time. Likewise, chardonnay, particularly from regions like Burgundy and California, can also age well for 5-15 years. Fermentation in oak barrels, for instance, lends the famous grape robust, creamy, and toasty notes that delight the senses. Such masterpieces can beautify your cellar for years and are well worth the wait. Aging can do great things to enhance the pleasures of drinking fermented grapes. But like too much wine consumed in one sitting, there can be too much of a good thing. And regrets are possible.
There are Limits
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective, there are limits to what the aging process can accomplish.
All wine, no matter what the varietals may be, will always hit a peak or optimal drinking window – after which point, it begins to decline. With the widespread assumption that wine should be aged, you might be surprised to learn that approximately 98% of all wines we buy in the store ought to be savored immediately. Even wines that age well still can’t sit forever without diminished fruitiness, a loss of balance, and oxidation, all of which diminish the flavor profile. Moreover, as the days go by, wine eventually becomes more delicate and susceptible to environmental factors, which is certainly the case with the Speyer wine bottle. Not surprisingly, experts aren’t even sure it would survive if we attempted to open it.
Just to create a hypothetical scenario for our entertainment… let’s just say that the Museum were willing to give up this gem and that we somehow possessed special equipment to open the bottle without disturbing the integrity of the liquid inside…would it be worth the effort?
Nothing to Savor in the Speyer
If popping and thus exposing the bottle to the air didn’t immediately shatter it, the odds remain that the wine inside this ancient bottle would no longer have an ounce of flavor. Worse, the alcohol content has completely vanished long ago. So while experts believe that you might technically still be able to drink it without getting sick, doing so would hardly be worth the risk. While this discovery has provided valuable insights into ancient winemaking practices and the cultural significance of wine during the Roman era – and although its celebrity status is a testament to the enduring allure and importance of wine throughout human history – the Speyer wine bottle would likely be a scourge upon the palate. What a buzz kill, indeed.
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