I'm always keen to sample wine. When I happened across some at the University of Waikato's exhibit, I thought it was my journalistic duty to investigate exactly why this wine was worth sampling. Turns out it's quite a story.
Mark Benseman, an electronic engineering graduate from the University of Waikato, has found a way to age wine in just a matter of minutes, by applying an electric field to it.
"It's trying to take away having to put the wine in barrels for two years," he says. "We just take freshly made wine, two months old or whatever, and we'll stick it down the machine. We want to simulate ageing for a year or two years, or whatever it happens to be."
But what does Mark's machine actually do? Helpfully, he drew me a diagram to explain. I've reproduced an inferior version for your benefit—there's nothing you can't do without a pen and a notebook.
Mark tells me there are two metal plates and 18 metres of glass tubing—where the wine goes—runs between the plates. The wine never comes into contact with the plates, on which there is a "big fat voltage" of 1000 volts. An electric field goes back and forth between the plates, flipping the molecules in the wine up and down and shaking them around. Mark says this speeds up interaction between the molecules, resulting in a faster chemical reaction. Voila! Wine, aged in well under two years.
Mark says the idea for the machine came about after they read about it in a Chinese newspaper. "They just said that applying electric fields to wine makes it age. And so we thought, this sounds like a load of crap, and so we built a machine that did the same thing and we tried it and it worked."
The potential benefits for the wine industry are numerous.
"If you can quickly age your wine, you don't have to store it, so you'll be able to sell it this year rather than next year," Mark explains. "You wouldn't have to store it in barrels, and barrels are very expensive. A barrel will cost $1000, so say a winery's got 20 barrels, that's $20,000 they don't have to spend."
Although the machine doesn't do oaking (yet), Mark thinks that if you had an oak chip process in line with it, the whole thing—the aging and the oaking—could be completed in one machine.
There are plans afoot to commercialise Mark's invention, and they're going through things with WaikatoLink—the commercialisation and technology transfer arm of the university—at the moment. Exposure at Fieldays means there are a lot more people talking about it now. "No one's ever heard of this, it's very new," Mark says. "Someone in the industry is bound to hear about it."
I asked Mark what this machine could mean for me, your average (cheap) wine drinker. "You can go and buy some crappy wine from the shop and whack it in the machine and it'll taste better is about it."
Mark, let me know when the benchtop model goes on sale.