Monday, December 29, 2008

Coming soon: vintage wine over night

Posted By on Mon, Dec 29, 2008 at 11:00 AM

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This next invention will change our culinary lives. Not in a two-bit way like the Magic Chopper has, but in the way microwaves or refrigerators did.

Scientists have stumbled across a way to make the cheapest of cheap wine taste like a vintage pinot grown in the heart of Burgundy.

It's an outlandish claim and people have been hawking various gizmos that promise to do the same thing for years, but this time it's respected scientists who have figured out a method that works -- and to prove it, they fooled wine-experts.

Xin An Zeng of South China University was experimenting with electrical fields' effect on food when he decided to try it with wine. The electrical field acts as a catalyst in turning various acids into esters. Esters are the pungent compound that give aged wine that unique mouth feel and taste. As a wine matures, it gains more esters and becomes less acidic, but it takes years for oxygen to turn the acids into esters.

Zeng found that by using electrical fields he could speed the acids-into-esters process into minutes. He presented his work to Hervé Alexandre, a professor of oenology at the University of Burgundy who was impressed, delcaring it a "feasible way" to shorten maturity. As strong of a vote of confidence as you're going to get from a French wine professor.

Zeng published his work in volume nine of Innovative Food Science and Emerging Technologies, a scholary journal that, in the same volume, included such breezy articles as "Comparison of hydrostatic and hydrodynamic pressure to inactivate foodborne viruses." According to Zeng's abstract:

An optimum treatment, with electric field 600 V/cm and treatment time 3 min, was identified to accelerate wine aging, which made the harsh and pungent raw wine become harmonious and dainty... The results presented in this paper show that it is a promising and novel technology to shorten the young wine's aging period. Not only can it shorten a wine's normal storage time, it can also improve some lower-quality wine... Recently, a few of the Chinese winery companies have already started to set up the plant scale equipment.
That last sentence -- about Chinese wineries setting up equipment for the electrical field -- grabbed the entire wine industry's attention. China is the world's fastest growing wine market and is trying to become a world-class wine maker as well. If the Chinese can figure out how to supply their own population with all the great wine they need, that leaves French and American wineries out of the picture.

Currently, domestic wineries are looking to see just how successful these first five Chinese plants will be before investing in the infrastructure to build their own electrical fields. The electrical fields also may pose health risks and have effects on storage that have just begun to be studied.

As for building an electrical field in your own home? Not anytime soon. Zeng said he's thought about designing home equipment but hasn't done it yet. Does that leave the door open for some American entrepreneur? We hope will see. -- Owen Morris

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