Science joins the fight to sniff out wine fraud

They already use unforgeable labels and unbreakable code numbers to protect their elite brands and now the world's wine producers can use a new weapon in the fight against fraud - atomic spectrometry.

They already use unforgeable labels and unbreakable code numbers to protect their elite brands and now the world's wine producers can use a new weapon in the fight against fraud - atomic spectrometry.

Scientists in Spain yesterday unveiled a technique which will allow the great marques of Champagne and the chateaux of Bordeaux to determine instantly whether a bottle carrying their label also contains their product. It works by identifying the unique "fingerprint" of 16 trace elements present in a wine and determining, for example, whether a white fizzy wine is Spanish cava or French champagne.

Dr Ana Maria Camean, who led the Spanish research at the University of Seville, said: "This is a powerful tool for authentication. Our tests produced no false negatives."

The breakthrough, which inventors claim has a 100 per cent accuracy rate, comes as wine producers are forced to spend millions of pounds on increasingly sophisticated methods to protect their brands.

Countermeasures include labels with hidden marks similar to bank notes, anti-tamper seals, laser etching and, in the case of one Australian producer, samples of vine DNA impregnated into the label ink to allow forensic testing.

It is estimated that up to £10m of counterfeit wine is sold annually across the world. In one of the largest scams in recent years, a million bottles of fake Rioja with forged labels were produced four years ago at a industrial bottling plant 300 miles south of the famous Spanish wine region.

But producers and retailers point out that in a global industry worth £300bn, fraud represents only a tiny proportion of what is produced. Despite this, it is a problem which the trade admits it has to take seriously, leading to a potentially lucrative market for the test.

An executive at one leading champagne house said: "The protection of the brand is our first priority. If there is an efficient method of testing a suspicious bottle on a shop shelf, I'm sure there would be market."

Andrew Gordon, director of leading London fine wine merchant Corney & Barrow, said: "There is unquestionably a problem with counterfeit wine which affects the high end of the market. Measures have been taken to protect the brands and make counterfeiting prohibitively expensive. Petrus, for example, has a unique blue-print for each label. As a result, it is not a problem of epidemic proportions. In 20 years I have only seen half a dozen cases [of forgery]. But if you can buy a case of claret for £3,000 and turn it into a case of 1982 Le Pin worth £30,000 then the temptation is always going to be there."

The Spanish test, revealed by New Scientist magazine, hopes to supersede current countermeasures by making the wine itself "tamper proof".

It uses the technique of atomic spectrometry to measure levels of the trace metals in each wine and then compares with it with the known "fingerprint" of each wine. For example, champagne contains 0.6 milligrams of zinc per litre, twice the level of cava.

Tom Stevenson, author of the New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia, said: "Three-quarters of the wine sold as 'Italian' in the US is not Italian."

The advent of the millennium brought a rash of fake champagne onto the market in Britain. But champagne producers insist that despite the problems four years ago counterfeit bubbly remains a rarity because of their tightly-controlled distribution network. Nonetheless they go to considerable lengths to protect the brand. Louis Roederer, which produces the Cristal marque, favoured by celebrities, has introduced a unique code number on each bottle and cases which allows it to be traced and confirmed as genuine.

Frederic Heidsieck, the company's international sales director, said: "We are concerned about the problem of counterfeiting and take it extremely seriously. We are happy to take out an insurance policy to protect our product."

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