Electrifying wine.

December 19th, 2008

Electricity. From: photobucket.com

Electricity. From: photobucket.com

I came across this topic on the Wine Spectator forum yesterday. Chinese scientists have been experimenting with electric current and wine. The process involves passing electric current across pipes carrying wine. In 2005, a Japanese man had come up with a similar process of electrolyzing wine.

This is not necessarily mad science, thought the lead chemist, Xin An Zheng is reluctant to delve into details.

I was one of those kids that incessantly asked “how” and “why”, exhausting the patience of adults. True to nature, I sent out some emails last night to get some insights on the scientific basis of this method.

Now before I get into what my hypothesis of how this works, I should point out the one major misstatement in the Telegraph article:

You can’t turn plonk into water (unless you can also walk on water). Plonk is drinkable wine that is made to be consumed early. The formula for age worthiness generally includes a combination of robust tannin content and high acidity (high T.A., low pH). Unfortunately, wines made to be age worthy, are often not very pleasant to drink in their youth. It is with time, that the acids and tannins soften and mellow. There is actually a lot of chemistry going on as part of that process but but it needs lots of time.

We generally don’t think of wine and its contents as electro-conductive, electro-reactive or magnetic. My thinking, initially, was that since this proposed method involves pumping wine through pipes and then passing electric current through those pipes, the method may induce the release of metal ions from the pipes’ inner surface or ionization of metal atoms on the inner surface of the pipes. The pH and other chemical characteristics of the wine may facilitate this release or ionization. The polyphenols in the wine might then react with those metal ions. After all, the recently debated Harbertson_Adams tannins assay takes advantage of the ferro-reactive nature of some polyphenols to precipitate them.

It turns out I wasn’t too far off. Several winemakers also share my thinking. Some suggest that this process may produce “free radicals like ozone which may affect the polymerization of tannins”. Another winemaker also shares my suspicion that “the electric field may induce the release of iron ions from the pipes which then precipitate the tannins”.

Here are some other factoids I learned from the winemakers I contacted:

  • In the past, electric field sterilization has been proposed as an alternative to mechanical filtration.
  • Electrolysis and ion exchange have been used to reduce acidity in wine.
  • In addition to electricity, putting “various sorts of energy (microwave, ultrasound, etc.) into wine to get “aged” character” in wine.

So, if there is some basis to this weird0-sounding wine method, does this mean that Clef du Vin actually works?

In all seriousness, the more important question is: if this method were to be developed and brought to market, would it produce desirable wines at an acceptable cost to the producer, and would it offer any advantages to the current approaches to making forward wines approachable in their youth? How would one market such wine?


ALSO: There is still time to win four bottles of Clos Pepe Vineyard pinot noirs made by top producers.


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2 Responses to “Electrifying wine.”

  1. El Bloggo Torcido - Twisted Oak Winery Says:

    Shocking Developments…

    This time of year you’ll see all sorts of gift guides, including wine gadget gift guides. Seems like there are a whole bunch of gadgets out these days that propose to make your wine taste like it has had years……

  2. larry schaffer Says:

    Good morning . . ..

    The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that any time some new ‘gadget’ or ‘treatment’ comes along in the wine industry, I always get a sense of ‘who are they trying to fool now?’ from the general public . . . I think it’s perfectly fine to be weary of new technology, but to be outright cynical without even considering that it might actually work? Not for me . . .

    You’ve pointed out some specific cases where ferrous compounds have been used in the winemaking process, and where ion exchange is currently used for such things as tartrate stability . . . Could it be that far fetched that something IS actually happening in the case of the Chinese process? Sure it could . . . but it’s just a bummer that no scientific data was shared to be able to ‘see for ourselves’ what actually IS happening behind the scenes . . .

    I guess we’ll just have to follow up and wait to see what happens here – and perhaps analyze the results after Gallo or Constellation installs something similar to help get wines to market faster! . . .