Wine from a Radioactive Age

There’s little doubt that a fair amount of good can come out of the synthesis of radioactive isotopes in the fields of medicine and pure research. The most common radioisotope used in diagnosis is technetium-99, with about 40-45 million procedures performed annually. Without carbon-14 as a tracer, the pathway of photosynthesis’ dark reactions would never have been elucidated. Without ratios such as that of ²H to ¹H in ice cores, we would not have been able to verify that for tens of thousands of years temperature has correlated well with levels of carbon dioxide. (Of course given that CO2 molecules absorb heat, we have both causation and correlation between the two variables).

Image of French physicist Philippe Hubert from

The nuclear industry does not keep such facts secret. Another truth is that these isotopes can be produced in fairly small reactors, and even at that, they are not incident-free; maintenance and regulation are essential, and eventually old reactors have to be shut down, such as will occur with the one at Chalk River in Canada in 2018.


Radioisotopes can also serve as interesting probes in the wine industry. Shortly before and after various countries banned nuclear testing (mostly in the 1960s; although France persisted until the 70s and China, 1980s) the level of cesium-137 was much higher in the environment. Before the nuclear age, that particular isotope did not exist in nature. It was first formed from the fission of 235U. Vines absorbed 137Cs that had spread in the environment, and it ended up in wines.  By measuring the amount of gamma radiation, which goes through the wine’s glass bottle, scientists can authenticate the dates on the label and expose fraud. Thanks to the testing-bans and to its half-life of 30 years,the concentration 137Cs has steadily declined in the environment and Bordeaux wines produced since 1990 should emit near-zero levels. It is true that without the 1990s development of low background germanium (Ge) semiconductor detectors, the very low levels of radioactivity found in wine  (0.01 to 1 Bq– 1 disintegration per second) would never have been detected. In contrast, a banana has 15 Bq due to its small percent of beta-emitting potassium-40. One kilogram of low-level radioactive waste accounts for 1 million Bq. Multiply that by 107, and that’s what’s found in 50-year-old high-level waste!

ChelyabinskCesium-137 can also come from nuclear accidents. The little-known Kyshtym Disaster of 1957 in Russia released 7.4 X 1016 Bq, which killed 200 people, evacuated 10 000 and affected about a quarter of a million others. Another source claims that in the same Chelyabinsk province region, about half a million people were irradiated in three separate incidents, exposing them to as much as 20 times the radiation suffered by the Chernobyl victims in 1986.

For fear of ringing alarm bells over levels in old wines,  comparison to natural background radiation is made and points out that whatever gamma released by those wines is insignificantly smaller.  Even if we consider that cesium-137 wasn’t the only isotope released—beta-releasing carbon-14 in Australian wines shows a similar pattern— the combined amount of radiation originating from those 1960s wines is still miniscule. But for people living at the time, they were also ingesting other foods, so needless to say, for that reason and others, the nuclear test ban was more than necessary. Any man-made radiation from radionuclides is added on to other sources of beta, gamma or alpha and to that of medical X-rays,  all of which lead to more of an assault on our DNA.

The Science And Tradition Of Winemaking

DolomitesSince my last name means “grapes” in Italian, it is fitting that my father and brother are both amateur winemakers. While my dad stubbornly sticks to medieval techniques, my brother, a chemical engineer, makes use of science. But although our understanding of winemaking has deepened, and although additives serve an important purpose, the basic process has remained unchanged for about 6000 years.

Commercial winemakers who rely on grape suppliers and hobbyists are both at the mercy of the harvester, who exercises control over the most critical stage of winemaking. The concentration of various grape ingredients that will impact the taste of wine vary significantly. During ripening, the levels of sugar, phenolic compounds and aromas rise while the amount of acid decreases. A few weeks before picking grapes, results of laboratory analyses and weather forecasts are consulted to choose the optimal time for harvesting.

Lugs of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The latter is added to shorten the time it takes for the wine to mature.

No winemaker in my extended family relies on concentrated grape juice from kits. Instead they get their fruit from 36 pound wooden cases called lugs. These make their way to Montreal from California by either truck or train. Upon close inspection, a few bunches don’t exactly appear to be fresh off the vines. But most are impeccable and delicious, far sweeter than table grapes. As a kid I would often sneak into the garage to smell and taste them.

The two main sugars in grapes are fructose and glucose, accounting for a whopping 18 to 25 % of their content. Pectin only accounts for about 0.06%, which is why it’s necessary to add pectin when making grape jam. But in winemaking that same amount of pectin has to break down; otherwise it reduces the clarity of wine. In dry wines, most of the sugar will have been converted to alcohol during fermentation, an oxygen-independent reaction that provides yeast with adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

Why is the acid-level important in winemaking? Low acidity (high pH), common in grapes that are too sweet because they were grown in excessively warm climates, lowers the amount of subtle flavors in the grapes and wine. There is also an optimum pH for fermentation because, as Pasteur demonstrated, it is an enzyme-driven process. Prior to fermentation, pH is measured either by titration or more conveniently with a pH meter, and if it is too high, an acid blend is added. The acid blend consists of the three organic acids that are found in grapes: citric, malic and tartaric, the latter is less common in fruits but the most common in grapes. It led to Pasteur’s
discovery of enantiomers, molecules that are mirror images of one another. (The original Pasteur experiment, however, has been difficult to replicate.) Yeasts themselves will then add a small amount of other acids to wine.

 (Cork of 15 year old wine showing tartaric acid crystals. A wasp investigates.)

Homemade fermentation tanks. A separate tank is used for each grape variety.

Phenolic compounds which include the same type of compounds that make autumn leaves red affect the astringency and color of wine. Normally fermentation occurs in stainless steel tanks. But some chardonnay wines undergo fermentation in oak barrels and owe part of their taste to tannins transferred from the wood.

When grapes have the right balance of sugar and acid, they are harvested and are quickly brought to the winery to be destemmed and crushed. Destemming the grapes prevents the stalks and stems from being crushed with the grapes, which would produce an excess of tannins. Red grape juice or must is fermented with their skins to extract color. White grapes are pressed after they are crushed so only the juice is kept for fermentation. A five to ten percent solution of sodium metabisulfite (Na2S2O5 also added to preserve epinephrine in epipens) is added to kill wild yeast on the grapes. This creates an equilibrium with sulfur dioxide(SO2), the truly active ingredient. The wild yeasts are too varied in composition and are often intolerant to wine alcohol concentrations, causing fermentation to stop prematurely, leaving a high residual sugar content in the finished product. In addition, SO2, inhibits enzymes that oxidize phenolic compounds responsible for discoloring wine. If a minimum of 80 ppm of SO2 is not present, more SOgas is bubbled into the juice, but the legal limit is 200 ppm.

Due to SO2 treatment, fermentation won’t start until a selected wine yeast is reintroduced, usually a pure culture of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Interestingly my father and brother have at times started with the same grapes, with my dad refusing to add metabisulfite and yeast to his vat. You can guess which wine usually comes out looking and tasting better.

Fermentation is an exothermic process (it releases heat). But in winemaking, the temperature cannot exceed 29oC for red wines or 18oC for white wines), otherwise the growth of yeast cells may stop. Moreover, a lower temperature is desirable because it prevents the loss of volatile aromas and flavours. In homemade wine, excess heat is usually not a problem, but since large commercial vats have lower surface to volume ratios, they cool to slowly on their own.

As sugars get converted to alcohol, the density of the mixture decreases. Since an aqueous alcohol is less dense than an aqueous sugar solution, a hydrometer can help determine when fermentation has stopped, usually when the specific gravity has fallen to about 1.000. An alternative to measuring sugar concentration is the Fehling reagent. I’ve also watched my brother use a hydrometer prior to fermentation to predict the wine’s potential alcohol content.

The freely run juice after fermentation is of the best quality. Going for quantity by squeezing the pulp dry severely compromises the quality of wine. It should be used only for later distillation of alcohol, which can then be added to other products. My father is fully aware of this fact, but driving his cost down to two dollars per bottle unfortunately takes priority over fine taste.

To clarify the wine, the fermented juice is transferred into a settling vat, or if made on a smaller scale, into a demijohn. In these, suspended yeast cells, cream of tartar and particles of skin and pulp settle to the bottom of the container. As the yeast cells break down within the precipitate, they stimulate the growth of Lactobacillus bacteria that convert the wine’s malic acid into lactic acid. This malolactic fermentation process is especially important in wines made from highly acidic grapes because lactic acid is a weaker acid than malic acid. (Bacteria decarboxylate malic acid , thus removing one of the acidic carboxyl groups), so it mellows the wine’s taste.

After the demijohn stage, the wine is repeatedly racked to leave behind less and less sediment called lees. During the repeated racking, the wine is also given a chance to rid itself of the excess carbon dioxide from fermentation. As the CO2 escapes, oxygen enters the wine with each transfer, helping eventually to age the wine.

The wine’s final flavor comes from its blend of phenolics, acids and sugars. But aromatic compounds are said to give it “character”. In reality we do not taste wine without also smelling it, and molecular gastronomists remind us that we don’t perceive what we smell directly through the nose in the same way as what we smell through the mouth. The concentrations of volatiles is quite low: in the 1 to 4 ppm range. The fruity or floral smells are due to the monoterpenes (natural products with repeating units of carbon and hydrogen but ending with an OH group) containing citronell, alpha-terpineol, geraniol and linalool. Aged wines have compounds like vitispirane and TDN(1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydro naphtalene).

In the CBC documentary by Josh Freed, “The Trouble With Experts“, a professional winemaker and university professor fooled wine-tasting experts by switching the labels on them. Non-connoisseurs, however, preferred the more expensive wines, without knowing which was which. The idea was that expectation plays a role in judgment, but there is a distinguishing chemistry between different wines, nevertheless, one that is not always worth the exuberant price difference.

Occasionally, despite my dad’s outdated winemaking methods, I have caught myself saying, “You know, this wine isn’t half-bad!” Especially after the first glass.

Edited by Ted R. Uva

Originally published Oct 1, 2011; updated Oct 3, 2014

Other Sources:

Amerine, Maynard. Wine. Scientific American.  August 1964.

United States Department of Agriculture

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