Physicists at Bordeaux University have developed a method of dating wine by measuring its radioactivity.

Philippe Hubert and his team used the same principle as carbon dating to calculate the age of wine by measuring its caesium-137 levels – the amount of radioactive material it contains.

By measuring the wine’s radioactivity due to fallout from events such as the atmospheric nuclear tests conducted from 1950 to 1963 and the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, the vintage can be accurately determined.

The research may one day be able to identify terroir as well.

‘Different concentrations of radioactive particles reflect chemistry and the environment. We want to find out if a “nuclear ID card” can be produced for wines. It’s difficult, even utopian, but potentially very interesting,’ Hubert told decanter.com.

Wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace and Corsica dating from 1986 can be differentiated according to caesium-137 levels.

The research is funded by the French fraud office. Their laboratory was installed to check vintages after recent fraud cases although where higher sensitivity is required, the experiments are performed in a high-security underground laboratory on the French-Italian Alpine border.

As well as preventing fraud, the laboratory can test bottles from private cellars at the owner’s request.

Previous experiments have been able to date wine approximately using carbon decay, but required the wine to be opened, evaporated and burned, using the ashes for measurements. Hubert and his team produced initial measurements in this way, but the new technique means the vintage can be checked without opening the bottle.

The research used bottles of Bordeaux with certified provenance for every vintage between 1950 and 2000. The team of five – two physicists, two agency officers, and one geologist – worked for two years to complete the experiment.

Written by Frances Robinson