The Electric Vintage

Ξ December 27th, 2008 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine News, Wineries |

Donna writes:
South China U of TechMy husband called me a few days ago to tell me about a newspaper article in the UK newspaper Daily Mail. The article from the 18th of December told about how Chinese scientists from the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou invented a treatment to convert cheap wine into premium wine.
Reportedly they have been working on this technology for the past 10 years. The procedure is to pump wine through a pipe between two titanium electrodes at 600 volts per centimeter (V/cm) current for a period of 3 minutes. Resulting in wines that had softer acidity, were more aromatic and palatable. The test wine was a 3 month old cabernet sauvignon from Suntime winery in China and went through a professional tasting panel as well as chemical analysis showing the wine indeed improved with this technology.
After reading the article I got fixated on what 600 V/cm exactly meant. Just how much energy usage is that? I researched online trying to equate it in layman’s terms.
In my research, I found a reference that a household appliance such as a hair dryer, coffee maker, TV’s etc. had an average electrical field of 30-60 V/m (volts per meter). Next, I found a voltage converter which transcribes V/m into V/cm and places the household appliance’s range at point 3 (.3) to point 6 (.6) V/cm.
Then I converted 600 V/cm stated in the article and the resulting number is 60,000 V/m. That’s twice the amount needed to create the phenomenon St. Elmo’s fire. So, if my layman’s analysis is even remotely correct, those are very powerful currents to use simply for accelerating the age of young, cheap, unbalanced wine into something palatable and ready for market in 3 months versus the average 6. Could that much power be correct with my analogy? I don’t think so.
So I’ve asked a number of people regarding my dilemma and I’ve gotten a bunch of different replies, so I’m going to have to post an update in the future when I better understand the voltage used.
So why am I writing about it at all? It’s really intrigued me and the mad scientist that dwells within wants to figure it all out.
There were more questions to be asked:

1. What does the machine look like?

2. Is the machine scalable, by the few articles I found it appears to be a large machine.

3. Who were the “experts” who tasted the wine?

4. Why was a Chinese wine used? Why weren’t samples of Cabernet Sauvignon used from different regions throughout the world?

5. What’s up with a Burgundy wine professor endorsing it? Burgundy is birthplace of terroirists!

So after looking REALLY hard, I found the paper.
Wine Improvement machineThe machine looks relatively simple. It has 3 sections, a high voltage generator, pump with a flow rate controller and a treatment chamber. It uses 220 V power supply. The treatment chamber has two titanium plates of unknown size separated by 20 cm of space. That undetermined space houses Teflon pipes with inner diameter of 20mm of unknown length where the wine passes through between the plates. The wine enters the machine and the flow is controlled by the pump.
The paper advises 50 L (I assume that’s liters) of wine was used for each sample and timed at 1 minute, 3 minutes and 8 minutes at various electrical field strengths of 300, 600 and 900 v/cm. So with 50 liters for each sample, it appears to be a decent sized piece of machinery to be able to pump that much wine through 20mm diameter tubing in 1 minute. 50 L is about 66 regular bottles of wine. With the data given it’s impossible to work out the tubing length.
Then the paper discussed the sample used. They used Cabernet Sauvignon from the Suntime Winery Company in northwest China. Aged 3 months after it went through malolactic fermentation. For those who don’t know what malolactic is, it’s a secondary fermentation all red wines go through converting malic acid into lactic acid (think milk) which is softer. A few white wines such as Chardonnay go through this second fermentation to add body and softness. With white wine it’s much more noticeable as the lactic acid lends a buttery taste.
What was interesting about the wine sample is it went through 2 fining and 3 filtering processes before being subjected to the test.

Albumin Glue

Sheet Filtration

Kieselguhr Filtration

Membrane Filtration
I’m surprised there was anything resembling wine left after all that. Fining and filtering are common in the wine industry, but I haven’t knowingly drunk any that has been put through all those processes.
Then a panel of 12 experts in wine sensory evaluation was given the samples to rate on a 100 point scale following O.I.V recommended methods which are quite scientific and detailed. There were no details on who the experts were or their qualifications. The graph on the study shows the optimum sample given a 600 V/cm for 3 minutes treatment received a full 15 points higher score than the untreated sample. 15 points is a remarkable difference in wine quality.
What is interesting is the wine wasn’t subject to temperature increase during the procedure. It maintained 25C as it exited the machine. Although the tasters noted the sample that went through the procedure for 8 minutes at 900 V/cm had a burnt taste.
But only Chinese wine was used. I would think such an amazing discovery would also see a selection of Cabernet Sauvignon samples such as California, France & Australia used. It poses the question: Does it only work with cheap wine or can fine wine be made even better? As well as wines that were not fined or filtered prior to going through the procedure? I would have liked to have seen a sample of MD 20/20 go through the process as well.
So while this machine appears quite remarkable, I’m amazed 5 wineries in China have invested in the technology to produce facilities enabling them to immediately ship new wine to stores and decrease storage expenses. I understand electricity is subsidized by the government so it’s cheaper for them to use this aging method versus the storage requirements for an extra 3 months before a wine can be sold on the market.
I couldn’t find any documentation on the shelf life of wines that went through the procedure, but I figure in my own personal opinion if wine is artificially accelerated to be at its prime when it hits the shelf, it would have a 6 month window for drinking before it began its decline. Its decline should be quite rapid compared to a traditionally aged wine.
Ultimately while it’s a very intriguing process that can boost the flavor compounds of wine to taste better, are we going to see wineries readily adapting this method?
The current trend for winemakers is to create wine using sustainable and traditional methods versus manipulating wine with strange processes, chemicals and additives. Instead of subscribing to such intense technology, I hope they continue on this path, making wine as it was intended, a reflection of its place, its Terroir.


2 Responses to ' The Electric Vintage '

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  1. Jim Eastman said,

    on December 29th, 2008 at 7:16 am

    A couple of points, and then hopefully, I can shed some light on this.

    Minor corrections: 600 V/cm refers to an electric field, not a current (which would be measured in amps). St. Elmo’s Fire usually occurs at a field strength of 30,000 V/cm, not 30,000 V/m, meaning that the experiment used a field strength 50 times less than that phenomenon.

    Essentially, what happens is that they charge each of the two plates in opposite directions (one plate gets charged positively by removing electrons, the other negatively by adding electrons). This difference in charge creates an electric field in between the two plates. Positively charged particles will be attracted to the negatively charged plate and vice versa.

    To make things more interesting, they used a fairly high frequency (from a power perspective, still very low frequency from a radio perspective) of 3kHz to oscillate the field. So the field is not static, but rather varying. The charges on either plate oscillate at that 3kHz frequency, so 3000 times per second each plate goes from being the positive plate to the negative plate and back again.

    Unfortunately, my electrochemistry (I’m mostly a physics geek) background is not what I’d like it to be, so I’m not sure the mechanisms of how the AC field impacts the chemical makeup.

    As for energy consumption, that is very easy to determine from the paper. They claim an average power of 1kW. So if left running for an hour, it would use 1kWh of energy. This would be the same as running ten 100-Watt light bulbs for an hour.

    I hope I was able to help!

  2. on December 29th, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Hi Jim!

    Thanks so much for the information. I was trying to figure it out and I knew the references I was finding were really a bit mad compared to what the actual reality of the technology was.

    Now I understand better the difference between V/cm and V/m. I couldn’t find a way to equate what we (regular non physics people, who have problems with simple algebra) could understand the type of power they used.

    It is interesting that it’s the same power as running ten 100 watt bulbs, so it’s quite cost effective even without government subsidy.

    It’s been fun trying to take it a step further regarding this new technology and put it in perspective.

    As more data comes in with future developments I’ll be sure to update.


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