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Wineries embrace sensory analysis
The tendency for winemakers to shy away from such testing has been exacerbated by what sensory scientist Leigh Francis says can be a sense of 'distrust of methods that don't involve experienced winemakers'.
As shelf competition increases along with consumers' wine knowledge, more wineries are turning to more science-based testing.
They're paying for services that will help them see if consumers believe their wine is fit for the purpose it is intended and reflects the taste of the target market.
Francis, who is in charge of running consumer testing and sensory analysis at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), says changing attitudes of consumers is encouraging wineries to embrace formal testing procedures.
'Generally, winemakers provide most of the sensory evaluation for companies with unreplicated tastings and no statistical analysis applied, however, this is changing slowly, with some companies starting to run consumer testing and formal sensory analysis methods,' he said.
'When we started running consumer tests at the AWRI, there was some negative comment from some members of the industry, along the lines of 'consumers can't say what they want and we need to tell them', but nowadays it is rare for people to raise these types of concerns.
'We've shown that wine consumers are not stupid, they dislike wines with less pleasant flavours - even low levels of flavours such as 'brett' or oxidation will deter consumers strongly. We have also shown in our sensory studies what specific positive flavours are really well liked by consumers.'
One wine company that has been proactive in this field is Orlando Wines.
In 2007, the company established a comprehensive internal sensory program, which uses about 60 trained panellists to assess wines made as part of research and development projects.
The projects span the entire supply chain, from the vineyard to the consumer, and include different oak treatments, yeast trials, fermentation temperatures, bottling line trials and market segmentation studies.
Pernod Ricard global research and development manager Kate Lattey says the information and knowledge generated through the sensory program is used by its winemakers to ensure its wines reflect consumer tastes.
'Sensory analysis is at the heart of our product development process as it provides a critical link between winemaking and our consumers using language they understand,' Lattey said.
'We want to ensure that we continue to deliver wines that meet or exceed consumer expectations in terms of taste profile, and sensory analysis is an important tool in helping us achieve this.'
At the same time, however, Orlando is conscious of the risk of going 'too commercial'.
In an attempt to ensure wines reflect consumer tastes without losing the uniqueness often exhibited by new and often untried varieties, Orlando tries to engage both winemakers and consumers equally.
'It's not one or the other leading the way, it's working together which takes both the creativity of the winemaker but also the objectivity of the consumers to help come to a point that hopefully delivers what the consumers want,' Lattey said.
'We do the same with both consumers and our winemakers - we sit down with the winemakers, show them the data, offer the tastings and try and work out how we can create something.'
The wine style dictates who Orlando consults with first.
'If it's a new wine in a growing category, we'll go to the consumer first and, then, the winemaker. If it's a new variety, we'll go to the winemaker first because they know what varietal characters to look out for and how they should be expressed,' Lattey said.
Francis says the benefits of sensory analysis cannot be underestimated.
'Sensory analysis is an extremely important part of product development, with multiple roles, from assessing consumer needs and gaps in the market; working with production and marketing to develop prototype products; aligning packaging and wine taste; making sure that a product is well-liked compared with competitors before release, and determining sensory specifications that relate to winemaking options,' he said.
'Use of sensory methods will greatly reduce the risk of launching unsuccessful products that can damage a brand and waste a large amount of scarce company resources.'
The AWRI offers Australian wineries contract sensory and consumer testing, ranging from simple difference test studies for a few hundred dollars to more complex and costly rating studies, descriptive analysis and consumer preference testing.
Sensory symposium highlights opportunities
Leigh Francis was among almost 70 sensory specialists to attend the New Zealand and Australian Sensory and Consumer Science Symposium, in February.
'The World of Flavour' was the key theme at this year's event, which took place at the Jacob's Creek Visit Centre, in the Barossa, and aimed to give participants a better understanding of how flavour supports product development.
Now in its sixth year, the symposium attracted a mix of researchers and people from the food and wine industry, including representatives from Orlando Wines and Lion.
Francis said having Orlando Wines host the symposium was significant as it highlighted the growing importance of sensory analysis in the wine sector.
'With challenging times in the industry, more companies are aware they need to more directly consider the consumer in their winemaking process, which has helped to change the culture in the industry somewhat,' he said.
One of the participating companies at the symposium was dairy company, Fonterra. Francis said there were a number of similarities to the dairy industry that the wine industry could learn from in relation to its sensory testing.
Like the wine industry, the dairy industry revolves around a product of a seasonal nature, he said.
'Many larger cheese or dairy products companies have formal sensory panels which play a large role in sensory quality control of the batches of their products, and closely assess consumer preference and sensory profiles from a trained panel in new product development,' Francis said.
'Expert cheesemakers, of course, also play a very important role, but sensory panels and consumer preference data mean that batches of products with off-flavours or defects can be eliminated from production, and specialty products that appeal strongly to a section of the market can be developed.'
Another industry the wine industry could learn from is the beer industry, Francis said.
'Having a panel of sensory assessors in the beer industry means that each lot of beer brewed can be checked to make sure it matches specifications and results compared across brewing facilities,' he said.
'The beer industry makes extensive use of sensory data to make decisions about raw materials, processes and packaging to make sure their business is focussed on producing high quality products from the consumer's perspective, while reducing costs where possible.'
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