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Fixing faults in the science of wine

A bottle of wine that smells “off” has long been the aficionado’s dread and the industry’s curse, but Washington State University’s Victoria Paup, a Ph.D. student in the School of Food Science, is using game-changing technology that could help detect and potentially stop the cause of a wine’s malodor before a bad batch reaches the market.

As part of her doctoral research, Paup studies “wine faults”—off-aromas or flavors caused by a range of factors like oxidation, reduction, or chemical imbalance. While some of these faults are easier to detect and fix, others remain elusive and challenging. But thanks to Paup’s research and a highly sensitive machine called the electronic tongue, winemakers may be able to stop the bacteria causing these faults, saving the industry and consumers both time and money.

Scientist in laboratory using instrument to test wine
Ph.D. student Victoria Paup tests for wine faults using the electronic tongue.

“The implications of our research could be huge,” Paup said. Her goal is to see if the “e-tongue’s” sensors can reliably identify previously undetectable microbial changes in a wine’s chemistry before it is too late.

The key, she said, is determining “how accurate and how early” the e-tongue can be in its detection of spoilage microorganisms. “These spoilage bacteria can develop in the bottle when the wines are supposed to be stable and finished.” And that, she noted, can be costly.

Bacteria occur naturally in wine and are developmentally necessary, but detecting when good bacteria turn bad has been challenging for winemakers. “Even the most notorious spoilage microorganism in low concentrations can introduce positive notes like spice,” she said, “as long as it doesn’t get to the point that it turns the wine funky.”

As a researcher and Tri-Cities native, Paup likes knowing that her work could help the Washington wine industry both scientifically and economically. But she is also excited to be working with cutting-edge technology. “The electronic tongue is still a kind of novel technology that hasn’t been explored to its fullest yet,” she said. WSU is one of only a handful of universities publishing research based on e-tongue findings. Having worked with the device as an undergraduate at WSU, Paup is well-versed in its applications and optimistic about her study. “Our preliminary work has shown promising results.”

This study was supported by the Washington wine industry. To learn more, visit WSU’s Viticulture & Enology program.

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