Particle Accelerator Helps Test Wine

Stephen Williams of the Antique Wine Company describes the new high-tech way to determine a wine's vintage.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Not sure of the vintage of that dusty old bottle of Saint-Emilion sitting in the basement next to your collection of old running shoes? Well, The Antique Wine Company of London may be able to help. They've collaborated with French scientists to use ions generated by a particle accelerator to read the age of the wine bottle without damaging what's inside. Joining us now from Moscow is Stephen Williams who is the managing director of the Antique Wine Company. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. STEPHEN WILLIAMS (Director, The Antique Wine Company): It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: So how can it read the age of the stuff inside without opening the bottle?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Basically, we fire out of the particle accelerator a very weak but high-voltage beam at the glass of the bottle, and this then emits x-rays. And these x-rays are analyzed so that we can actually see what the process of manufacture was used when the bottle was made. And that gives us a very strong indication of the type of furnace that was used and the age of the actual glass itself. What we're doing at present is we're building up a database of absolutely authentic references that are being provided to us by the various chateaus. We are analyzing wines that have never moved in their history, so that we know that our benchmark dates are as absolutely robust and reliable, against which in the future other bottles will be compared.

SIMON: Now, I must ask you that, because there is a lot of fraud going on in vintage wine.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, the same as all collectibles. Arts and wine is not any different to that. There has probably been foul play. We don't think that counterfeit wines are prolific in the market, but they probably do exist.

SIMON: May I ask, Mr. Williams, does anybody really open up a 100-year-old bottle of wine and drink it?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes. I think most wine collectors actually enjoy drinking wine as well as just looking at it. This happens quite often. And in these days, you know, these collectors are people all over the world. And in these emerging economies, wine is often used as an element of sophistication, to provide an element of sophistication, a Western lifestyle. And often, people just want to drink the very best. These are sometimes very valuable and old wines.

SIMON: Is there a bottle of wine, well, just personally, you'd love to get your hands on, love to taste?

Mr. WILLIAMS: One of my favorites is the Chateau Margaux 1900 vintage. And the last time I tasted that wine, actually, was about ten years ago, and it was still drinking absolutely delicious.

SIMON: How much might they run, in theory?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Probably at around 20,000 U.S. dollars a bottle.

SIMON: So you just don't eat that with peanuts, do you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: No, that would be a great shame, wouldn't it really?

SIMON: Stephen Williams of The Antique Wine Company speaking with us from Moscow. Thanks so much.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you very much, Scott.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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