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Spanish Look to Electronic Nose to Curb Corky Wines

Goal is to design a portable machine that producers can use to test corks for TCA taint and reduce losses of wine.

Richard Neill
Posted: July 8, 2003

A Spanish-led group has begun a 2 million euro ($2.3 million) project to develop a machine that will test corks for the presence of trichloroanisole (TCA), the chemical compound responsible for the musty aromas and flavors in corky wines.

The consortium -- which involves the University of La Rioja; two Rioja wineries, Alicia Rojas and Santiago Ijalba; and a Portuguese cork manufacturer, Tapitalia-Rolhas -- is being partly funded by the European Union's Marco Program for Investigation and Development. The project began earlier this year, and the team is confident that it will have a prototype within two years.

"We will certainly have a portable version ready," said Antonio Soler, managing director of Mesurex, the Malaga-based technology company that is coordinating the development of the so-called electronic nose. "Our ultimate aim is to produce an affordable instrument that will enable wineries to check their corks before they go in the bottle."

According to Soler, corked wines account for a high percentage of wineries' losses each year. "If we can even reduce the number of returned bottles by half, it would have a phenomenal economic effect," he said.

This latest initiative comes at a time when an increasing number of wine producers around the world are resorting to alternative closures in frustration over the continuing problem of TCA-tainted natural corks. Earlier this year, wine producer Miguel Torres became the first Spanish bodega to use Stelvin screw caps on one of its white wines.

Most wineries conduct regular chemical-based, quality-control checks on their corks, but the laboratory process is time-consuming and is often only carried out on sample batches. The Spanish team hopes that the electronic nose, a sensory device that scans for volatile chemicals, will provide a more efficient and comprehensive means of checking corks.

Soler explained that the instrument will work by taking an air sample from around a cork taken from a sample batch and measuring the level of TCA. This measurement will then be compared to parameters set by a computer software system to determine whether the cork is "good" or "bad."

As well as testing corks, the planned device would be able to take air samples around any item and therefore could test for TCA in any part of the winery. TCA taint in wine is often attributed to tainted natural corks, but the chemical compound can form elsewhere in the winery through the interaction of plant phenols, chlorine and mold.

According to experts, the ability to perceive TCA in wine varies enormously from person to person, ranging from levels as low as 1 or 2 parts per trillion to more than 10 ppt. Soler was unable to confirm what levels of TCA the electronic nose will be able to detect, saying that extensive chemical analysis still has to be completed before minimum levels are set.

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