Using Atomic Bombs To Sniff Out Counterfeit Wine

Never say that nuclear warfare is good for nothing. The dastardly criminal enterprise of counterfeiting fine wines took a major hit recently with the announcement of a new method for determining vintages that relies on atomic blasts.

One of the biggest problems facing the wine industry is the misrepresentation of vintages, or the years the wines were produced. Seasonal variance plays a major role in determining the quality of wine produced in a given year; too much or too little rain at crucial periods in the growing season can ruin the quality of the grapes, leading to low quality wines that command far smaller prices than their better counterparts. Experts estimate as much as five percent of all fine wines sold today are actually poor quality wines sold under false vintage.

Graham Jones, a PhD at the University of Adelaide in Australia, has devised a new way to figure out the precise year a bottle of wine was produced, spelling an end to counterfeit vintages. Much like the radiocarbon dating method that is used to date archaeological materials, this method relies on the decay of the carbon-14 isotope, and it's all thanks to two decades of post-war atomic bomb tests.

Jones explains:

Until the late 1940's all carbon-14 in the Earth's biosphere was produced by the interaction between cosmic rays and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. This changed in the late 1940's up to 1963 when atmospheric atomic explosions significantly increased the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere. When the tests stopped in 1963 a clock was set ticking - that of the dilution of this "bomb-pulse" C-14 by CO2 formed by the burning of fossil fuels.

In other words, the massive amount of carbon-14 created by these tests has since been steadily diluted by the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The grape plants used in the wine absorbed some of the radioactive carbon through photosynthesis, preserving that year's ratio of radioactive carbon to non-radioactive carbon. of Since the precise carbon ratio is known for each year from the late fifties onwards, it is now possible to test the carbon content of any given wine to determine the year from which it originated.

Jones and his team say that their methods worked on a sample of twenty different Australian wines from 1958 to 1997, accurately dating their respective vintages to the exact year.

[via The American Chemical Society]