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Danish-developed robotic tongue out-tastes Belgian winetasters

The annual World Blind Wine-Tasting Championships took place in the southwestern French town of Leognan in 2013. The settlement is near France’s wine-growing capital of Bordeaux, the port city nicknamed “La Belle Endormie” (Sleeping Beauty). Teams from different countries lifted wine glasses with utmost flair, sipped and allowed the wine to swirl in their mouths before unleashing their verdict. Belgium emerged as eventual winners, but the convention of wine connoisseurs, like everything in the universe, is about to get a violent shakedown.

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In Denmark, researchers have created an artificial tongue and wine connoisseur, a wine tasting robot that might unseat the entire fraternity of wine critics in the near future. The robot has been built to determine whether expensive wine actually tastes any better than the cheap stuff.

The robot uses a nanosensor to tell you if the wine is bitter or sharp, instead of connoisseurs’ explanations of the smell of rain approaching from miles away in some distant, dusty esplanade.

In an article published in ACS Nano, the researchers claim that an optical nanosensor, based on surface plasmon resonance, can detect how one experiences the dryness in wine. Another claim made by the researchers, one that will not go down well with wine tasters, is that the nanosensor can detect the tannins — the textural element in wine that makes it taste dry — better than those Belgian wine tasters.

“The sensation arises because of the interaction between small organic molecules in the wine and proteins in your mouth. This interaction gets the proteins to change their structure and clump together. Until now, the focus has been on the clumping together that takes place fairly late in the process.

With the sensor, we’ve developed a method that mimics the binding and change in the structure of the proteins, i.e. the early part of the process. It’s a more sensitive method, and it reproduces the effect of the astringency better,” says researcher Joana Guerreiro.

The technique used in the robot is not new, the researchers say, but this is the first time that it is being used to create a sensor that can measure an effect rather than just a number of molecules. The science behind the robot tongue can be applied on a molecular level to develop targeted medicine.

“The sensor can be used for diagnostic purposes. It could possibly be helpful for discovering and even preventing diseases,” says Duncan Sutherland, research director for the study.

Wine aficionados around the world, as expected, will punch holes in the robot’s science. To counter that argument researchers at the Arhaus University argue that the nanosensor is without the prejudice of human wine tasters.

The other advantage that the robot has over human wine tasters is that it is without personal taste and that means its verdict is not dependent on what it prefers in its personal capacity, but what is contained within the wine.

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