What links fine wines with the atomic age?

Collectors and investors alike across all kinds of collectibles fear one thing more than any other: that their cherished piece isn’t what it’s supposed to be.

With wine, this is a particularly acute problem. The valuable part of an investment-grade wine bottle is - hopefully - well sealed inside, and it’s owner has no way of knowing its quality for certain.

There are two basic problems for a collector to worry about: has the wine been preserved, and is it what it said was in the first place.

With the first problem, you can never be sure, but there are hints: a bottle which has unscuffed, clean labels and its original wooden case has probably been treated with respect in general.

A dropping level in the bottle, on the other hand, hints that something is going wrong.

Straightforward fraud, however, is even more alarming. By some estimates, one in 20 wine lots sold is fraudulent - there was a different vintage in there in the first place.

Now scientists have offered a helping hand, in the form of carbon-dating. Nuclear-bomb testing during the middle of the 20th century released a great deal of Carbon-14 into the atmosphere.

Carbon-14 has eight neutrons together with the six protons which make it Carbon, unlike Carbon-12 which has six of each. Carbon-14 is somewhat unstable and gradually breaks down to Carbon-12 again.

Australian scientists, noting that Carbon-14 was absorbed into vines, and then appearing in grapes and finally wines, and knowing that Carbon-14’s decay rate is predictable have developed a technique to tell a wine’s age.

Detecting the amount of Carbon-14 in the bottle allowed them to tell the age of the wine to within a year, which could be invaluable to those about to purchase a wine, and alarming to fraudsters.

Technology can be important in collectibles. Last year, we mentioned the invention of a device which detects the deterioration of rare books by smell.

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