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Brut or sweet? Spain gets electronic 'tongue' to taste cava

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
Researchers believe the electronic tongue may reduce the need for human tasters in cava-producing bodegas
Researchers believe the electronic tongue may reduce the need for human tasters in cava-producing bodegas
  • Scientists say the electronic tongue can tell how much sugar is in a cava
  • It can pick out three of seven types of cava classifications usually used
  • Sensors and mathematical processes are used to reproduce human senses
  • Researchers in Barcelona say the device could help in the production process

(CNN) -- Scientists in Spain say they have developed an electronic "tongue" that can identify different types of the Spanish sparkling wine cava -- a task more usually left to the skilled palate of the sommelier.

Using sensor systems and mathematical processes, the electronic tongue can currently distinguish between three types of cava -- brut nature, brut and medium dry -- researchers at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona say.

But they hope with proper training, it will soon be able to pick out all types of cava on the market, in the same way a human sommelier might, and quantify how much sugar each contains.

Cava, made in the same way as champagne, varies in sweetness according to the amount of the sugar added in the production process, with seven classifications ranging from Brut Nature to sweet.

The research team in Barcelona believes the electronic tongue could help identify problems during the process and aid quality control -- perhaps reducing the need for human tasters in cava-producing bodegas.

The scientists have aimed to reproduce human senses by developing biosensors to obtain chemical information and using computerised systems to interpret that data in the way the human brain and nerve system would.

The electronic tongue is not the first device to challenge the traditional role of the sommelier.

Scientists in France have in recent years developed an electronic "nose" which can pick up chemical signals to detect different types of wine and where they were made.

And researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden said last year that their electronic nose could be used by vineyards to tell the perfect moment to harvest grapes for maximum flavour, or to detect when an opened bottle of wine has gone bad.

Nonetheless, it seems unlikely human sommeliers will be out of a job in fine restaurants any time soon, since their skills tend also to include knowledge of wine regions, service, glasses -- and the all-important wine jargon.

Pip Martin, director of the UK-based Sommeliers and the Wine Adventure, told CNN the electronic tongue sounded like a poor rival to human abilities.

A human being can identify around 10,000 different aromas and scents, Martin said, and distinguish acidity and bitterness as well as sweetness -- giving the sommelier a distinct advantage over the device.

"If it can only determine levels of sweetness and that's it, I cannot imagine it taking over the role of a traditional sommelier any time soon, not least because it probably wouldn't have the small talk that a sommelier would bring," he said.

"Sommeliers are not just about wine recommendations and tasting abilities, they are about being personable when a customer comes in the door."

CNN's Carol Jordan contributed to this report.