The tricky thing about wine—especially the fancy stuff—is that since it gets better with age, what you buy off the shelf isn't necessarily always at its peak. A few seconds with the Clef du Vin, though, will age it to perfection. And, if you're not careful, all the way around to bad again.
The Clef du Vin, made by Peugeot (not the car company), is a novel device that simulates the bottle-aging of wine. For every one second you put this nifty wine key in contact with your wine (per 50 mL), it claims to mimic the process of aging it for one year. So if you have a wine that would taste best in 2016, just expose it for a brief two seconds to the Clef du Vin, then like magic you have an aged wine akin to drinking it two years in the future.
Bottle-aging is a common technique used to create smoother, more mature wines with rich complex flavors, one that normally requires nothing more than patience, and enough self-control not to drink your stock until it has reached peak maturity. Essentially, a wine's tannins are gradually thrown from harsh, astringent, and dry to smooth, voluptuous, and velvety. Now, if the latter descriptors sound more enticing, then I'd say you're likely a fan of bottle-aging whether you know it or not.
There's a bevy of contributing factors to the infamous tannic quality of a wine, but more important than what causes them are how they affect the taste. The Clef du Vin, an unobtrusive metal stick that looks like you could flip mini-pancakes with it, supposedly mirrors the same effect of these long-developing tannins in just seconds.
It claims to do so by employing unique mixture of copper, gold, and silver, three metals that have a direct chemical reaction with the wine that forces rapid oxidation, accelerating a process that happens naturally when your wine is exposed to oxygen over time.
Oxidation can be a tricky thing. Many red wines that contain high levels of tannin require air in order to "breathe" and "open up," otherwise they're considered "tight" and can taste quite dry (think about how some wines suck all the moisture out of your mouth). However, after a brief upward bump in its flavor profile from aeration, the wine begins an irreversible spiral downward. Think how you'll pour wine into a decanter to let it breathe, but not let it sit out overnight.
Now if you could create a device that were to simulate this brief bump in such a predictive manner by creating softer, rounder tannins, you could achieve the effect of an aged wine before its downward trend. But does the Clef du Vin actually pull it off?
Gizmodo stopped by a local wine store, D'España in Soho, to conduct our experiment of the Clef du Vin. We had several seasoned wine veterans taste various bottle aging times affected by the Clef du Vin, and then did a blind tasting to see if anyone could tell the difference.
The overall conclusions is that the device is definitely changing the profile of the wine, albeit mostly in aroma, but the biggest question we faced was: Was it a change for the better?
First, we wanted to see how the Clef du Vin affected the composition of the wine to understand the chemistry going on behind the scenes. We picked a young Ribera del Duero (100% Tempranillo) from Spain that would require years of bottle aging before it reaches peak maturity.
The wine we chose was an Aalto Ribera del Duero, 2011. We had a control glass, then 4 others that had been modified by the Clef du Vin (equivalent to three years, five years, seven years, and thirty years aging). Our expert panel agreed ahead of time that the optimal number of years to age this wine would be around three to five. The seven and 30 year glasses were to see how much downside came with overusing the Clef du Vin.
The control glass was juicy, robust, and full of flavor; however, it was obvious that the wine was tight and incredibly young. It would definitely benefit from a few years in a dusty cellar. The simulation of three years aging was miraculously different. The texture was transformed into something more velvety, soft, and smooth. There was also a significant change in its aroma.
The next three age simulations, however, seemed wildly inconsistent. The seven year was oddly closer to the control, while the five and the 30 year both had a "tinny" or metallic taste. It's clear that overexposure is definitely a danger with the Clef du Vin, and exposure times should be considered carefully. Luckily, the product actually comes with a chart to guide you through the process, including different varietals and different exposure times that will tease out various flavors in the wine.
Next, we used a lighter wine to conduct the same test. However, our test subject was blind-tasting the four glasses this time. The wine we selected was a Mencia from Bierzo, Spain—Palacios Corullon 2011—and we hid a control glass among the three affected glasses (three years, six years, and 15 years).
While we weren't able to effectively identify each of the glasses, differences between the four were apparent to every nose and palate that encountered them. In fact, the three year age simulation was resoundingly the favorite, suggesting an optimal exposure time of the Clef du Vin.
The factors that go into what makes a wine taste a certain way are innumerable. We spoke at length with the good folks at D'España about what was happening inside our glasses and came up with some pretty good hypotheses. Zachary Moss, the store's purchasing director, concluded that the change was likely more of a strong olfactory suggestion more than anything else:
"My guess is that the metallic component is a reactive metal that introduces ions into the wine. A similar analogy would be a copper mixing bowl adding ions to the albumin in egg whites making them fluffy when whipping them into a meringue. My assumption is that, by the addition of these charged particles into the wine, the volatile acids & esters that are dissolved in the solution are excited and thus vaporized. This gives the consumer the impression of the wine 'aging' since the nose is immediately more open."
The power of suggestion is an intimidating factor for many, especially in wine. Therefore, if someone says this will make your wine taste better, we tend to believe them. However, an olfactory change can't be overlooked as our sense of taste is highly connected to our sense of smell.
Okay, so it works for the fancy stuff. What about the wine you're actually drinking?
The wines we tested at D'España were higher-end, meant for at least a few years of aging, which isn't exactly your every day glass of red. So how does this thing work with your daily drink?
I grabbed a bottle of Apothic Red 2012 and Yellowtail Shiraz to conduct my own experiment. I poured my control glass and then tasted the two wines. Both were jammy, pungently alcoholic, and so juicy and ripe that they were nearly sweet. Hello New World! Next, I carefully poured three glasses of each to expose to the Clef du Vin (two years, three years, and five years).
From what I could tell, the aroma changed just like our higher-end wines, and the alcohol was masked by an oaky, nearly woodsy smell. I definitely enjoyed both wines more after using the Clef du Vin, but the drop off started immediately after about the 3 year mark. The wines weren't more complex, nor were they less sweet. However, it was the texture of the wine and a reorganization of the same flavors that made it more pleasing.
For $50, this handy device isn't a hefty investment and is worth the fun of just testing and tasting different wines. Additionally, if you're a more serious collector, you could actually use it to gauge the cellar potential for a few bottles you bought as to predict their peak maturity. Regardless of your style—whether it's that bottle you've been saving for a special occasion or just your average Two Buck Chuck—the Clef du Vin is certainly worth a try. Just try not to overshoot your target.