The technique consists of zapping bottles with ion beams generated by a particle accelerator.
The beams are directed at the glass, not the wine, and can distinguish how old the bottles are and, roughly, where they originate.
"We compare the suspect bottles with those that we know come from the chateaux," explained Herve Guegan, a researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Bordeaux.
"The chemical composition of glass used to make bottles changed over time and was different from place to place," he said.
The Antique Wine Company in London, which asked Guegan’s Centre for Nuclear Studies to develop the fraud-busting technology, handles more than 10,000 bottles of rare wines every year for thousands of customers around the world.
"We sell bottles every day for between $2,000 and $10,000," said the company’s managing director, Stephen Williams, noting that the exceptional grand cru can fetch up to $100,000 (€70,000).
At these prices, "counterfeiting is something we have to be very diligent about," he said by phone.
France’s most prestigious Burgundy and Bordeaux chateaux are notoriously reluctant to discuss fraud or its prevalence, but wine experts say it is a growing problem.
In a recent and spectacular case, American collector William Koch sued a German wine dealer, claiming four bottles, allegedly belonging to US president Thomas Jefferson, he had purchased for 500,000 dollars were fake. The case has yet to be settled.
To prevent counterfeiters from filling authentic old bottles with ordinary plonk, Williams intends to combine the ion beam test with another established method that checks for levels of a radioactive isotope, cesium 137, in the wine itself.
This technique, however, is only effective in identifying wines made in the era of heavy atomic weapons testing in the later half of the 20th century.
The ion beam technology unveiled Tuesday depends on comparison with genuine bottles.
"We are working with the various chateaux to develop a database of benchmark references," said Williams, adding that more than 120 of Bordeaux’s most prestigious house have signed on.
He has also set his sights on the prized Burgundy region in northwestern France, and said a service geared toward wine collectors, wine merchants and auction houses will be available by late November.
While the new test can verify the age of the bottle, it cannot guarantee the quality of the wine.
The ion beam analysis correctly dated bottles of German wine recovered from a German ship, the Deutschland, that sank in a storm off the coast of England in 1875, Williams said.
"The wine, however, wasn’t very good. We still had a headache six months
later," he said.
Other technologies developed in the last few years to combat fine wine fraud include water marks and holograms on labels, much like those used on bank notes, along with bar codes and UV-sensitive markings.
Hardys, part of Constellation Wines Australia, now inserts DNA material from 100-year-old vines in tamper-proof neck labels on its top bottles.