The process in which a select few generally more expensive wines become better with age has long been, even to this day, steeped in mystery.
The time it takes for any wine to reach its peak in taste, for instance, depends on several factors, such as grape variety as well as the region and season from which they were harvested. Even bottles made from the same batch will each have their own distinct composition of acids, fruity esters and astringent tannins that interact and evolve ever so slowly, giving a mature wine its deep complexity.
So it’s quite remarkable then that a number of devices, introduced in recent years, are able to achieve in minutes that which would normally take sometimes decades. Well, that’s the claim at least.
There’s, for instance, the magnetic wine wand, which purportedly uses a magnetic field to reduce some of the astringency and bitterness of young wines by “softening” the tannins, a class of grapeskin-derived compounds that heavily influences flavor (In winespeak, this simply means enabling them to combine so that their weight eventually causes them to sink to the bottom as sediment).
But perhaps the most notable among these gadgets is the Clef du Vin, a pocket-sized stainless steel plate with a tiny disc, made of copper alloyed with gold and silver, located near the tip. The combination of metals, dipped into a filled glass, is said to initiate a chemical reaction that removes sulfide, a preservative known to adversely affect the taste, as well as hasten the oxidative process in a manner somewhat akin to wine aging.
The concept isn’t entirely far-fetched as it’s been shown that various materials, such as copper, can noticeably impact how wine tastes, though the notion that any agent can simulate actual aging has been dismissed largely as little more than pseudoscience in many wine circles.
Keith Wallace, a winemaker and founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia, can point to at least a few phases of the natural aging process that’s simply not replicable through artificial mechanisms, like for example, the methodical way acetobacter, a microorganism, converts some parts into vinegar.
“The ‘holy grail’ in the wine business has long been to come up with something that magically makes a $10 bottle of wine as good as $100 bottle of wine,” Wallace says. “It’s something that has been going on for a long time and it’s the oldest con in the books.”
Just last month, a Spokane-based start-up in Washington introduced what’s perhaps the godfather of all such devices, the Sonic Decanter. About the size of a coffee machine, a bottle of wine (cheap, expensive or rare, it doesn’t matter) is placed into a fitted compartment and bombarded with 40 kHz sound waves. And through the course of 15 to 20 minutes, the liquid structure will start to resemble a higher quality wine that’s been aged for years, according to the product’s Kickstarter page.
“Our tests show that after each session, there are some chemical and molecular changes that are similar to what mother nature does naturally,” says Michael Coyne, founder of Dionysus Technology Concepts, the company behind the technology. And while the changes aren’t identical to what’s seen with the aging of wine, he’s quick to remark that they are “very close.”
That’s because ultrasound waves, at just the right frequencies, he explains, modifies a certain key components to enhance the overall enjoyment of wine, such as reducing the amount of oxygen and sulfur dioxide while stimulating esters. This translate to what testers have described as a “smoother, fruitier flavor,” along with “more aroma and a longer, lingering finish,” he adds.
To bolster his claims, the company had 300 samples sent to one of the largest independent wine laboratories in North America for analysis. Citing an agreement, Coyne says the name of the lab won’t be disclosed until measurements are completed, though he reported that preliminary results showed a 15 percent decrease in sulfur dioxide and lowered (pH) acidity levels.
Wallace, who has yet to try the device, cautions that while sound waves can alter the makeup and taste of wine in a way that makes it more palatable momentarily for some, there are drawbacks. “Wine is very sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and it’s already widely-known that low-intensity heat energy makes it more fruity, but then it also goes bad quicker,” he says. “It’s not even close to what happens when wine ages and if you really want to do that, I’d recommend saving your money and heating it in the microwave for a few seconds.”
He also added that besides common practices, such as decanting to removing sediment or simply aerating to dispel some of the astringency and bitterness, there’s ultimately little else that can be done to “optimize” wine. “Ninety nine percent of wines have been aged long enough by winemakers to where they’ve already at their peak,” he says. “The bottom line is that there’s no aftermarket customization of wine. It’s a fixed product.”
Coyne, of course, begs to differ. “The Sonic Decanter is not the same as decanting or aerating. It’s also not the same as other methods of applying heat,” he argues. “What matters is that a lot of people enjoy it more once it’s been put through the Sonic Decanter, and in the future we will have more complete data to detail these benefits.”
Joe Bonne, an award-winning wine critic and author of The New California Wine, is also extremely skeptical of many of company’s product claims. But it’s their assertions about reduced acidity (pH) levels that he finds particularly dubious. “Wine is pretty much pH stabilized once it’s sold in the bottle,” he says. “So I just don’t see how you can improve it to where it transcends certain limitations that are inherent, like the quality of the grapes used and the winemaking that went into it.”
Early hands-on reviews of the Sonic Decanter have been generally positive, however. In a blind tasting, staffers at the Huffington Post found that the Sonic Decanter improved the taste of red wines, though the same couldn’t be said of white wines (Coyne reasoned that the problem was due to the operators not properly replacing the water before each process). The team at tech blog Gizmodo also preferred the treated red wine, hailing it as “noticeably smoother” than the those fresh off the shelf.
Still, Wallace says he’d like to see how the machine would fare against wines that have been aerated, decanted or made more drinkable using other conventional, inexpensive means. As for Coyne, he says he’d certainly welcome such a challenge and intends to carry out such evaluations sometime in the near future.
“All I can say is that what we’ve created produces a change wine that people experience in a positive way,” he says. “So we’d like to distribute it across the industry so people can share, compare and learn from it. We’re more than happy to do that.”