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Tasters hold noses, sip 300-year-old wine

SHARE Tasters hold noses, sip 300-year-old wine

ALMERE, Netherlands — The connoisseurs held the ruby vintage up to the sunlight, swirled it in their glasses, and put their noses to the rim.

"It smells like cow dung!" one exclaimed.

"It won't be easy to swallow this one," another said.

But so strong was the temptation to sample a 300-year-old bottle of wine recovered from a 17th century Dutch warship that none of the experts on the panel was able to resist Friday.

Indeed, they were in for a flavorful surprise.

"There's a hint of fruit in it — of orange peel, marmalade and caramel. It's surprisingly good," said wine commentator Lucette Faber, swishing the liquid in her mouth as a fetid odor wafted through the tasting room.

The stout-bottomed, musty green flask was found by divers July 7 in a sunken wreckage off the coast of the Wadden Sea, a shallow sound between the Dutch coast and the North Sea.

Strong currents had recently left the cannon frigate exposed on the sandy bottom near Texel Island, said Arent Vos, head of the crew that undertook the mission for the Netherlands Institute for Ship and Underwater Archaeology.

Around 1700, during a lull in northern European sea battles, there was an upsurge in the import of French, Spanish and Portuguese wines to the Low Countries, according to the wine experts. They guessed the recovered wine was an early variant of a dry Port that had been colored with a small amount of elderberry juice.

"This must have been a very good wine at the time," said Faber, who headed the panel of seven experts at Friday's tasting. She noted that most wine at the time was shipped in vats and only the best vintages would have been bottled.

"I had four gulps, and I can still taste it," she said. "People said I shouldn't do it, you never know what's in it. But I was extremely curious."

Before the tasting, scientists carefully drilled a hole in the soft cork and transferred part of the contents into vacuum-sealed vials for laboratory tests.

Initial results estimated alcohol content at 10.6 percent and acidity levels comparable to modern wines.

Wine experts had feared sea water could have seeped in and spoiled the contents. But remarkably, almost none did. The scant accumulation of algae only on the neck indicated the flask had been protected beneath sand.

And while the smell — a strong rotten egg odor that hung around for about an hour, though lessening in intensity — was off-putting at first, the experts said that was to be expected after 300 years.

But despite the foul smell, almost no oxidation had taken place, so that when the bottle was uncorked the taste was preserved reasonably well considering the wine's age, said Theunes Braaksma, a Dutch wine quality consultant who took part in the tasting.

"The taste improved as it mixed with oxygen," he said, then added: "Of course, it wouldn't do well compared to a wine you could find in a supermarket today."

And while the experts called the bottle "priceless," they declined to compare its value to commercial wines whose provenance is known.