Wine: A question of taste

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New electronic devices are replacing the job of your tastebuds when it comes to tasting wine.

Grasshopper Rock Earnscleugh Vineyard Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009 $30. Photo / Babiche Martens
Grasshopper Rock Earnscleugh Vineyard Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009 $30. Photo / Babiche Martens

Taste is one of the most personal and subjective of the senses - or so you might think. However, robots are being made to mimic the human ability to taste and could soon be employed to sip wine like a sommelier.

Scientists in Spain have recently developed an "electronic tongue" which can identify different styles of the country's cava wines. "The device automatically produces classifications similar to those of a sommelier," explains Professor Manel de Valle, who led the team at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona that developed the device, "and can be useful in detecting defects during the making of these wines".

Through various chemical and mathematical procedures, this canny creation copies the human system of taste, is able to distinguish the difference between styles of cava, from dry through to sweet, and could be trained up in future to identify all kinds of cava available on the market.

This latest "robotongue" is one in a series of advances in this area. The Barcelona Institute of Microelectronics has also developed an artificial tongue, or "e-tongue" which is able to tell the difference between certain grape varieties and vintages.

Cheap to manufacture and quicker than sending samples to a laboratory, creator Dr Jimenez-Jorquera says it could have important applications in detecting frauds committed regarding claims made to the vintage year of the wine, or the grape varieties used.

A more sophisticated device that has been developed is the "hand-held electronic tongue" made by Antonio Riul of EMBRAPA Instrumentacao AgrOpecuaria in Sao Carlos, Brazil, which is able to distinguish the four basic human tastes of salty, sour, sweet, and bitter.

So far it has allegedly been able to discriminate between cabernet sauvignons of the same year from two different wineries, and those from the same winery from different vintages, as well as spotting molecules such as sugar and salt at concentrations well below human thresholds.

Another breakthrough able to assess some aspects of wine better than a human has been developed at the University of Bourgogne. This can not only sniff out the grape variety from which a wine is made, but the region and vineyard from which it hails and even the source of the wood used in barrels with which it has come into contact. Employing a mass spectrometer to analyse compounds in vaporised samples of wine, this produces chemical signatures that are then cross-referenced with a database of characteristics.

Much as these inventions are useful, like most taste-related technology, they're still pretty blunt instruments. When it comes to a complex product like wine, nothing can assess its subtleties quite like the human palate and nose. So winemakers, or indeed writers, have little to fear when it comes to our jobs ... yet.

TOP TIPPLES

A NEW BELL TOLLS
Cooper's Creek Bell Ringer Gisborne Albarino 2011 $22
The white albarino grape variety is now being grown in New Zealand, with this example from Cooper's Creek the first commercial albarino to be released. Called the "Bell Ringer" after the purity of its flavours - and Doug and Delwyn Bell who grew its grapes - it's a promising start to what could be an illustrious career for the variety in our vineyards. It shares the fresh salty minerally character of its Spanish peers, which is joined by more New Zealand-style fleshy white peach fruit and notes of lemon oil. Partner with shellfish. (From Caro's, Liquorland Newmarket and Mt Eden.)

A FINE FLAGSHIP
Wynns John Riddoch Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 $69.99
An elegant vintage of this iconic cabernet sauvignon from a "classic year" according to its maker, Sue Hodder. Made from the estate's best old vine cabernet, this flagship wine named after the Southern Australian pasturalist and parliamentarian John Riddoch exhibits rich but refined juicy blackcurrant fruit and hints of dried herb over a savoury meaty undercurrent, supported by svelte tannins. Seriously good stuff. (From fine wine retailers such as Glengarry.)

LEAPING AHEAD
Grasshopper Rock Earnscleugh Vineyard Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009 $30
Another delicious vintage of pinot from this boutique Central Otago producer, this is full of intense, ripe and tangy dark cherry fruit with a seasoning of roasted spice. (From Caro's, Hamilton Wine Company or the website above.)

- NZ Herald

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