Breathing Too Heavily (October 30, 2002)
The worst nightmare for a wine collector is to buy a rare vintage at
auction, to cellar it for years and then to find on pulling the cork that
the wine is oxidized.
Up until now there has been no way to tell the health of a wine without
actually opening the bottle. But chemists at University of California,
Davis, have come up with a way to monitor for oxidation using the same
technology that doctors employ for MRI scans.
Air, over the long term, is the enemy of wine and can turn it into acetic
acid (vinegar). If a cork's hermetic seal is broken usually by
drying out having been stored upright air can get into the wine
and spoil it. Thre obvious clue is wine leaking out.
Matthew Augustine, an associate professor of chemistry at Davis, has
used nuclear magnetic resonance technology to measure amounts of water,
ethanol (alcohol) and acetic acid in wine. He and his assistant, graduate
student April Weekley, placed unopened bottles into a powerful magnetic
field. Their equipment can detect the presence of acetic acid at one-tenth
the amount an experienced taster would need to recognize that the wine
They experimented on Cabernet sauvignon dating back to 1950 and determined
that levels of acetic acid in vintages 1950, 1960 and 1968 were oxidized
while wines from 1956, 1970 and 1977 were still drinkable.
Austune has applied for a patent for his technology that may become standard
equipment for wine auction houses in future.