As any discerning wine enthusiast understands, the sense of taste is especially complex and profound, capable of detecting thousands of individual flavors. For the past ten years, scientists at the University of Texas in Austin have been trying to produce a chemical system that can mimic this natural one…and now they believe they have succeeded, using wine as the test subject.
If you’re somebody who enjoys reading dense scientific papers, you should check out the published research study, Discrimination of flavonoids and red wine varietals by arrays of differential peptidic sensors. For the rest of us, though, here’s a quick summary of the research.
Dr. Eric Anslyn began his work with a team of undergraduates, and initially the idea of using wine as a focus had not occurred to them. It was seven years into the project that they realized wine’s cultivated variety of tastes provided an excellent template to continue their research, and they partnered with Dr. Hildegarde Heymann, a wine sensory specialist from the University of California in Davis. For the next three years, the team devised an elaborate array of chemicals that works like a wine litmus test—certain areas change color depending on the type of tannins and flavonoids present in the varietal. The team successfully used the array to mimic the skills of a master sommelier, blindly identifying Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, and Shiraz.
While the researchers’ ultimate goal is to use this array to identify the lifecycle of a living cell—a breakthrough that could aid in cancer research—the current chemical system can be useful to the wine industry in helping to verify the quality and authenticity of certain wine varietals. Counterfeit wines are an insidious problem, and can be hard to combat without constant vigilance. This new tool, which the researchers believe can be calibrated to work with both white and red wines, may be very useful for wine labs in the future.