'Robotongue' rivals the human palate

  • Thursday 10 January 2002

It may sound like the title of a 1970s porn movie, but Robotongue could be a vital addition to the winemaker's toolkit.

The Robotongue is a device so sensitive it can discern different vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon from the same producer, and different producers of the same vintage.

The machine was first made by Brazilian scientist Antonio Riul, of Instrumentaçao Agropecuária in Sao Carlos, and developed by boffins at the University of Bangor in Wales. It is said to rival human taste buds, with the great advantage that it never tires - unlike humans whose palates become saturated.

The electronic tongue, reports Nature magazine, will be invaluable for companies needing accurate and constant quality control of wine, tea, coffee, mineral water and other foods.

It can spot molecules such as sugar and salt at concentrations too low for human detection, and sense low levels of impurities in water.

Humans are thought to detect four basic taste types - sweet, salt, sour and bitter. Recently a fifth basic taste was identified - umami, the taste of monosodium glutamate. Taste buds are believed to contain receptors that are triggered by flavour-imparting molecules.

It is an area that is still only partially understood, but the electronic tongue works on the same principle. It uses chemical sensors to measure different tastes, producing an electronic 'fingerprint' which can then be assessed, recorded and presented as data.

The electronic tongue should be of practical use to the wine industry, especially for producers who seek consistency year by year in their blends.

Stephen Skelton of Chapel Down Wines in Kent, England, said it might usefully discern minute variations that couldn't be detected by the human palate. 'We know all the data – alcohol, ph, acidity and so on, but what you can't tell is the very tiny flavour differences.'

He added it would be of most use for blended products. 'Big wineries dealing in bulk wines might be interested in it. But I suspect they already use something like it already.'

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