Chileans develop pioneering system to scientifically measure the quality of wine

Work to establish a ‘digital fingerprint’ for the first pressing, carried out in collaboration with Germany’s Max Planck Institute, will be published in specialist journal Analytical Chemistry.

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Analytical Chemistry, one of the world’s most prestigious chemistry journals, will publish in its next edition a pioneering study on grading the quality of wine, carried out by Chilean scientists in association with Germany’s Max Planck Institute.

The work was headed up by the director of the Center of Biotechnology at Chile’s University Federico Santa María, Hugo Peña-Cortés, and developed with Alvaro Cuadros, from the Biological Information Technology department at the Center. It is based on identifying substances found in the wine which function as markers of different wine attributes, thus grading the wine’s quality. The markers were identified using ‘metabolic technology’, a cutting-edge technology commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry.

The metabolic analysis consists of mapping the full chemical content of a sample of wine to detect and identify as many factors as possible, including its variety, vintage, vineyard of origin and even its quality. Each type of wine tested will then be allocated a specific digital fingerprint that will act as a classification and categorization in the international marketplace.

The publication of the project in Analytical Chemistry will be accompanied by an editorial opinion and by interviews with further global experts, as the results of the research have been widely discussed in many related fields.

Hugo Peña-Cortés said: “Firstly we made an estimation of the number of chemical substances present in wine. It was previously thought to be approximately 1,000, but our study shows that the quantity varies with each batch, and is estimated to be between 3,000 and 6,000.

“It also outlines a new methodology that allows us to analyze wine samples without any processing, as had been required previously,” he added. “The greatest significance of this work is the development of a methodology to describe the substances that characterize the wines, which can identify those attributes that determine the commercial value of each wine.”

For example, the same sample of wine can be used to determine the grape variety used to produce it, the year of production and the vineyard of origin, said the Chilean researcher. Even more importantly, it will allow differentiation between different qualities of wine.

“There is increasing interest nowadays from regulatory bodies worldwide to construct databases and technologies that allow categorization of their food and drink products,” he explained. “The method developed by the scientists from USM and the Max Planck Institute is therefore highly relevant not just for the scientific world but also for the regulatory agencies and for the national and international wine sectors.”

In proposing a new framework for indentifying as yet unknown molecules, the study opens a new door in global wine research, allowing recognition of counterfeit wines and providing an objective standard for the wine industry to use in grading the quality of its wines.

The challenge now for the researchers is to hunt for substances found in the early stages of the wine-making process, in the grapes and the grape juices or ‘musts’. Their future aim is to develop a system which can predict the quality of a wine based on knowledge of the chemical composition of its ingredients.