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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 has oxidized.

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.

 

 

 

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