The largest quantity of wine bottles retrieved from the SS Republic wreck site is the champagne-style variety, totaling 175 examples in two different sizes. The majority of these bottles is comprised of the smaller version (10 inches high, much like today's split); while the larger 12-inch high variety, such as the example featured here, was found in far fewer numbers. In most cases, the cork was compressed and forced into the bottle during the 1,700-foot descent to the deep-ocean floor, allowing sea water to replace the contents. Remarkably, some bottles still had their corks intact. Extra care was taken when handling these bottles so the contents did not explode.
A few of these classic green bottles contained a whitish-yellow emulsified substance – not a wine product, but instead with oil-like characteristics. One sample had the appearance and texture of cottage cheese; another was more like butter. The bottles also had a rotting organic odor. It is possible that the substance may have been a vegetable oil, perhaps even olive oil. It was not uncommon in the 19th century to reuse bottles for various foods or other products, much like our use of modern-day Tupperware.
The characteristic champagne-style bottle has vertically parallel sides, with a distinctive long sloping shoulder that merges seamlessly into the bottle’s neck. It also features thick glass, as the bottle was designed to withstand the internal pressures of carbonation and also helped prevent spoilage from heat. Examples from the 19th century typically have a deep indentation in the base, the “kick-up” or “punt,” which is less defined in bottles of the 20th century.
The term “champagne” refers to sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France. But champagne-style bottles are found in surprising numbers in historic archaeological sites of the mid-1800s. This bottle type has been excavated, for example, in large quantities at Civil War–era Western Army forts where most soldiers would not have been drinking champagne. Likely the bottles were also used for less expensive products such as wine or beer. This might explain the large shipment carried aboard the SS Republic.