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Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Age of the Electronic Tongue

It knows wine, but does it enjoy wine?

The smart folks at the Barcelona Institute of Microelectronics in Spain say they have perfected a device that can detect a wine's grape variety and vintage nearly instantly. The "electronic tongue," as it is being called, is said to have six different senors that measure acidity, sugar content and other elements that make up a wine's characteristics.

The device is the latest tool for detecting fraud. As prices for top vintages have skyrocketed, so has the allure for con artists who try to pass off cheap juice as world class wine.

The electronic tongue so far is able to identify the differences between a chardonnay, Aisén, malvasia and macabeu, as well as track vintage characteristics. With huge price differences between "great" years and lesser vintages, this will enable wine merchants to certify to the public that what they are buying is legitimate.

While the electronic tongue is technology that will likely be first deployed to protect buyers who plunk down hundreds and even thousands for a bottle, it will enable regulators and importers to check to be sure that even moderately priced wines are what they say they are on the label. It is a few years away, but the hand held devices may just change the way some companies do business.

Wine critics and sommeliers do not need to fear the electronic tongue. While it will be able to tell you what is in the bottle, there will still be room for the experts to tell you if what is in the bottle is any good. The 100 point scale is still a human measurement when it comes to wine, at least for now.

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