Time for the electronic nose – a way to fight the fakers

Calling all inventors. If there’s anyone out there who can come up with a convincing project to build an affordable, portable electronic nose that would – with the help of an online database – reliably establish the grape variety/ies, origin, age and cleanliness of a wine, I’ll be the first to chip in some of my hard-earned cash. 


Stated simply, the equipment we currently have at our disposal – human nose and tongue – despite their extraordinary sophistication, really aren’t up to the job. Every day, there are countless discussions of whether a wine is or is not corked, or spoiled by brettanomyces. Producers across the globe have also been known to deliver wine to customers that is quite different to the one in the sample on which the original purchase was made. Big buyers have the means and muscle to fight their corner when this happens. Smaller ones don’t.



And then there are the fakes. According to some estimates, half the Lafite in China now has no link to the chateau. And what about all the fake Gavi I’ve heard about there? How much of that is there?

But of course the Chinese wine drinkers are all unsophisticated folk given to diluting their wine with Sprite, aren’t they? (Actually they’re often not, but that’s beside the point of this post). Western palates are far better equipped to spot a fake. To which I’d respond “Up to a point…”



Just look at the steady flow of stories we’ve been seeing of western billionaires being duped by forgers in Europe and the US. Rudy Kurniawan is about to go to jail for up to 14 years for selling ‘at least’ $20.73m worth of fake wine. Then we had the case being brought by a customer of the Antique Wine Company which was accused of selling fake wine purporting to have been produced in the 18th century.



Most recently, as Dr Vino revealed, there is the Danish couple accused of cheating members of the White Club who paid €15,000 for the privilege of being served fake wine in bottles that were apparently refilled several times.



Among those refilled bottles there was apparently one pretending to be Petrus 1970 which was sufficiently convincing to fool Neal Martin of the Wine Advocate. Martin is far from unsophisticated. He knows a lot about wine and has tasted a lot of Bordeaux in general and Pomerol in particular while writing a book on the appellation. 

But any eyebrows that are raised at Martin’s inability to smell a rat among the other delicious odours in his glass should be returned to their normal position right now. Just look at the art world and the number of top experts who are regularly fooled by good fakes. Last week’s London Sunday Times magazine had a piece by Christopher Goodwin that described how Werner Spies, a leading art expert, was bamboozled by a brilliantly executed fake supposedly by his friend Max Ernst.

Wolfgang Beltracchi, the forger behind that work was only caught (after faking up to 300 works, many of which are still in leading collections) because of analysis of the paint he had used. A meticulously careful man Beltracchi himself had been fooled by a tube of Zinc White paint whose label had failed to mention that it contained 2% of Titanium White which could not have been used by the artist.

In other words, the human eye, nose and tongue all need help when it comes to catching fraudulent artists and winemakers. Given the millions being made by the forgers, I’d have imagined that there should be plenty of cash available to fund the development of a reliable portable electronic nose. Especially if it can also help to lay the blame on cork manufacturers as often as they deserve.

So, all you inventors, Kickstarter awaits you!

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After posting this and sparking a vigorous debate between Dr Jamie Goode (a scientist) and Mark Gifford of Blue Poles vineyard in W. Australia (a geologist) over whether a portable gas chromatography machine could ever be a reality. Gifford was an optimist, saying: “we have portable parts-per-billion devices now in the geological field that were thought impossible 10 years ago. It is possible”. Goode, however, was adamant a portable machine capable of detecting TCA in concentrations of 1.5 parts per trillion – the requirement to finger ‘cork-tainted’ wine – would never exist.

A little online exploration revealed that Goode is too pessimistic. The zNose 4600 is already on the market, and it can already detect TCA in concentrations as small as one part per trillion.

The zNose is still a much bigger, clumsier piece of kit than I have in mind, and it can only detect one aroma at a time, but it looks to me like early proof of concept. My ideal version would be linked to a Coravin which extracts wines through a cork and to a laptop linked to an online database.

I look forward to being able to demonstrate that kind of device to doubters like Jamie Goode.


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