Wine: A nose by any other name
Anthony Rose An electronic device exists to analyse wine by its aroma, but it is no match for a human's olfactory skills
The Aromascan, as it's called, is the pride and joy of Dr Pete Channon and Dr Ian Ormrod, the white-coated boffins who head the facility. The two spend their days playing with gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers and other appliances designed to keep the quality of Whitbread's various products, from beer to coffee to Thresher wines, under close scrutiny.
The Aromascan looks like a cross between a coffee machine and a photocopier. Capable of analysing any liquid with an aroma, it tests wines for safety and consistency. It can sniff out aromas and grape varieties, so it can distinguish between a Macon from southern Burgundy, for instance, and a Chablis from the north. What it can't do yet is tell you exactly what a wine is or whether it's enjoying it or not.
How does it work? Take it away, Doctor Channon: "Clean air is bubbled through a wine, driving the odour over 32 semi-conducting polymers, or sensors, and a silicon chip passes a current through each of them. The polymers are made of various materials, so different aroma compounds bind to them. An electric signal comes out which gives a print-out called a neural network map." Still with me?
Batches of a wine can be measured against an original "fingerprint". If the print-out shows less than 80 per cent accuracy, the wine is referred back to the buyer. In two years of looking at Thresher's 15 best-selling wines, it's happened six times. "It's been useful, say, with the Chileans," say the doctors, "who we've come across selling one thing and sending another."
How does its performance compare with the human nose and descriptive ability? Its articulacy is limited to producing a colourful print-out of 14 or so taller or shorter lines each of which represents a flavour compound.
We tasted three wines, all from Errazuriz' Don Maximiano vineyard in Chile, then fed them to the Aromascan. A 1998 Merlot, juicy and blackcurranty with a hint of mint, appeared with tall brown and purple lines, showing it was dominant in isobutanol and iso amyl alcohols. A 1988 Carmenere, which tastes of grass and green bean, had smaller brown and purple lines but a tall orange (acetaldehyde) one. The distinguishing feature of the 1995 Sena, an oaky blend rich in cassis and spice, was a very tall orange line. So far so uninformative.
The good news for anxious wine writers is that the machine amounts to little more as yet than a fraction of a nostril. According to the doctors, who have already isolated 5,000 aromas in beer, the human nose has 50 million sensors. For the electronic wine nose to become more sophisticated, the number of sensors will have to rise dramatically, as will its analytical capacity. "I can't see the machine replacing the experts," says Dr Ormrod. "Not yet, at least"
Life & Style blogs
Why you should never make assumptions about people with autism
People all over the world are getting semicolon tattoos to draw attention to mental health
Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year, says study
Optical illusion turns blue demon into brunette
What do the emojis on Snapchat mean?
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
- 1 BBC told new political editor must be 'impartial' with Nick Robinson reportedly stepping down
- 2 Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
- 3 The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
- 4 The biggest first date turnoff has been revealed
- 5 German man found living with 300 rats in tiny apartment
£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...
£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...
£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...
£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...