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Fight Against Counterfeiting Goes Atomic

French scientists employ particle accelerator to authenticate wine

Augustus Weed
Posted: September 11, 2008

Collectors worried about counterfeiting could soon feel more confident when purchasing a rare old wine. The latest tool in the fight against counterfeit wine is a particle accelerator. French scientists announced last week that they have developed tests that can authenticate a wine bottle's age and sniff out counterfeits.

As concerns about counterfeiting grow, wineries, retailers and auction houses are looking for new ways to guarantee their wines' authenticity and reassure their customers. The amount of fake wine in the international market is believed to be small, according to Stephen Williams, founder of the London-based international wine trader Antique Wine Co. But no one has an accurate measurement of how many fakes are out there, and as the wine-auction market has boomed, counterfeiters—particularly those who can fake the rarest, most in-demand old vintages—have been enticed by the potential for large payoffs. Williams recognizes that wine buyers are concerned about counterfeiting and that the wine industry has to be aware of the problem.

One common method of counterfeiting involves replacing the label of a weaker-vintage wine, such as a 1987 Bordeaux, with a label from the same wine produced in a better vintage, such as 1989. (Château Le Pin 1989, for example, sold for an average auction price of $2,086 in recent months, according to the Wine Spectator Auction Index. Le Pin 1987 averaged $777.) It's one of the simplest ways to produce phony wines, since counterfeiters can copy a label with a quality scanner and a printer. The bogus bottles are then resold on the wine market as genuine and can circulate at retail or auctions for years before anyone suspects something is wrong.

To try to authenticate some of the 10,000 bottles of vintage wine that it buys and sells annually, the Antique Wine Co. signed an exclusive contract with Arcane, the technology transfer unit of France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), a Bordeaux-based laboratory that focuses on the development of new technology.

Testing wine itself to determine its age is problematic, since the tests are often inconclusive, especially for wines older than 50 years. The French scientists decided to analyze the composition of the bottles instead. Glass-production centers are unique, and production methods have changed over time, giving each bottle specific marks. "The characteristic signature or 'fingerprint' is the result of the main chemical components of the glass and the trace elements," said Hervé Guégan, manager of the technology transfer unit.

Since the analysis looks at a bottle's glass and not its contents, a bottle can remain sealed during the test. The particle accelerator projects an ion beam at a bottle and then studies the X-rays that are emitted from the glass using a semiconductor detector. The process does not harm the bottle in any way. The test results are then compared with information in a database created by Arcane, which contains an analysis of bottles sent directly from wineries to ensure their provenance.

The database currently holds detailed information on 80 bottles of red Bordeaux from the 1859 vintage to the current day. However, the Antique Wine Co. is trying to increase the size of the database and has approached various châteaus to submit bottles of wine for analysis. Wines from other regions such as Burgundy may be tested as well, but Guégan says a new database with information on bottles from each region will need to be created first.

Williams admits that the project is still very much a work in progress and that renting the particle accelerator and running the tests is an expensive procedure. Once the system is organized, his firm plans to step back from the operation. "We do recognize that this should be in the hands of an independent company," he said. An independent firm called VinCert SARL has already been established and will eventually offer authentication to private clients and other interested parties.

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