Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

BEVABS: appellation controlee

The European wine production industry is of enormous economic and cultural importance and Europe's wines are recognised as being the finest in the world. Unfortunately, there have been cases of fraudulent `doctoring' of wine, falsely increasing the value or quantity of a vinta...
The European wine production industry is of enormous economic and cultural importance and Europe's wines are recognised as being the finest in the world. Unfortunately, there have been cases of fraudulent `doctoring' of wine, falsely increasing the value or quantity of a vintage. Extensive quality legislation is now in place, but it must be enforced. The JRC's BEVABS laboratory is making a crucial contribution to this effort.


Most of us enjoy the odd tipple and, indeed, the health gurus tell us that the occasional glass of wine can actually improve human health. Good news, but how can we know that what we buy is the genuine article? The vast majority of wine producers and sellers are honest, but some are not above adding illegal amounts of cane or beet sugar to increase alcohol content during fermentation. Conversely, it has been known for wine to be watered, to increase yields.

Perhaps the best publicised case of wine adulteration occurred in Austria, in the mid 1980s, when unscrupulous producers were caught adding diethylene glycol to wines, to improve the `body' and sweetness, so that the bottlings could be passed off as expensive late-harvest wine. No consumers were injured, but the crisis seriously dented confidence in the country's wine industry. Clearly, to reduce fraud, wines must be tested for authenticity. The European Office for Wine, Alcohol and Spirit Drinks (BEVABS), a specialised laboratory of the European Commission's Joint research Centre, is doing just that.

Description, impact and results

The major driving force behind BEVABS, which is part of the Food Products and Consumer Goods Unit of the JRC's Institute for Health & Consumer Protection, is to ensure correct implementation of EU wine quality legislation. This covers aspects such as manufacturing procedures and how much sugar can be added. The regulations are complex and difficult to police. There are national laboratories and wine analysis institutes, but their results must be cross tested. Being totally independent of national influences, the JRC can verify national measurements, certifying that results across Europe are consistent. This ensures better quality wine and also avoids the possibility of damaging trade disputes, which could result from disagreement over analytical results.

The composition of wine is very complex and its analysis, as regards the detection of illegal practices, is correspondingly difficult. At present, the analyst has to use very powerful analytical tools like the isotopic techniques to address the problems of adulteration. In particular, two techniques are applied: isotopic ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS), and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). These methods allow analysts to determine levels of stable isotopes such as carbon-13, deuterium and oxygen-18 to establish the complete `history' of the analysed sample. Armed with the results, analysts from BEVABS' and authorised Member State laboratories can check databases from known authentic products to determine whether a wine sample conforms to the label on the bottle.

These databases have been developed and maintained by BEVABS, with the help of a network of specialised national government accredited laboratories which collect and analyse samples from the wine-producing regions on a regular basis. The databases are accessible to national control laboratories and contain information on over 80 parameters on each wine, which include geographical origin, year of production, type of grape, winemaking process, chemical analysis, soil composition and weather conditions, for 12 000 authentic wines, covering eight vintages since 1991.

The analytical techniques employed are not restricted to proof of wine authenticity. BEVABS is currently assessing their use in monitoring other food products, such as fruit juices, edible oils and flavourings. In the latter, isotopic analysis can differentiate between flavourings derived from natural sources and chemically identical products manufactured synthetically. This work is being carried out in co-operation with several laboratories in Europe, and could ultimately lead to the adoption of these techniques in testing a wide range of products.

Working partnerships

In effect, the BEVABS team acts as a focal point for the national laboratory network, cross checking the results from the individual institutions and harmonising test procedures. The network comprises five laboratories in Italy, three in France, three in Germany, two in Spain and one in the United Kingdom. BEVABS is also in contact with laboratories in Portugal, Greece and Austria which are not equipped with the sophisticated spectroscopic equipment necessary to carry out the tests, but which collect samples locally and send them to the JRC for analysis. This highly organised network ensures that the wine drinker is protected from fraud, such as watering and sugaring, and that the solid reputation of Europe's wines and their producers are maintained.

Source: European Commission, DG XIII/D.4 - Information and dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge

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