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How to Determine What Makes Your Wine Region Unique

Based on requests from clients, there is a growing interest to understand what makes a micro wine region unique from a sensory perspective. The main reasons cited were

  • Educating consumers and buyers on what they can expect from the region
  • Directing the winemaking practices that are best suited to the potential of the grapes

The goal of the exercise will drive the sensory evaluation approach. In the often repeated words of our Managing Director – Dr Leanie Louw:

The result of a sensory test is only as good as the panel that you use and the questions that you ask.

With this in mind we strongly caution against trying to glean this information from an informal benchtop tasting resulting in inconsistent tasting notes and biased discussions. There are much more powerful and effective tools available that doesn’t break the bank and the costs of which can easily be split among participating wineries.

With a well thought out experiment design, sensory best practices and a suitable tasting panel one can generate reliable outcomes with the necessary gravitas that will answer the question asked.

Some notes on panel choices

The decision of which panel to use depends on the desired outcome. The two options available are trained sensory panels and wine professional panels. Here’s how we used the two panels to profile micro wine routes.

Trained sensory panel for wine marketing purposes

In one case where the information was specifically going to be used to educate consumers, we decided to go with a trained sensory panel. The reason for this was that a non-industry professional trained panel typically uses a lexicon that are more easily understood by untrained consumers. Furthermore, because the trained panellists use descriptors in exactly the same way, it was easier to identify those individual descriptors that are more commonly used to describe wines from the region.

Wine professional panel for strategic winemaking decisions

In another case that had a more strategic objective, we used a panel of winemakers and wine professionals to evaluate the wines according to a very specific sensory evaluation methodology that expressly allows for the fact that wine experts don’t always have agreement on how wine descriptors are used. Using this approach we could communicate the factors behind the uniqueness of the region using terms that are more conceptual and encompassing than what a trained panellist would typically use, for example “integration.” These help winemakers to make strategic decisions based on concepts that they are very familiar with.

Contact us for assistance in profiling your wine region


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6 Cases in which sensory problem solving was a good idea

Sensory problem solving is our theme for 2020. Entering our third year of business, we’d like to review some of the problems that our clients have brought to our lab.

Bottle variation in the wine industry

We’ve encountered this problem several times. Buyers commented that our clients’ batches showed bottle variation. This is an excellent example of when using an independent service provider is the best bet. Using scientifically sound methodologies, we were able to prove whether the bottle variation existed or not. In one scenario it was a case of switching to a different cork that brought about subtle changes and, in another case, the suspected bottle variation could not be detected at a statistically significant level by our panel. In both cases, empirical evidence was now available to facilitate a discussion between the buyer and the winery.

Mitigating risk in recipe changes

One of our clients had to make a small recipe change for a massive brand. While the change was small, the risk of regular consumers picking up the difference and subsequently switching to another brand was massive. Investing in an independent sensory test is small change relative to the damage that could be done by putting a sub-par or noticeably different product on the market.

Quality control

Another client thought that they detected a defect in one of their batches but couldn’t reach internal consensus. They submitted their samples for independent sensory testing and the results showed that the batch was different from the standard and they were able to make a decision regarding batch recall.

Delivering on a product’s quality promise

A client had a product with a sensory call-out on the label. Some consumers complained that the attribute that was called out was not as prominent in the product as what they were used to. Using a descriptive test comparing three batches we were able to determine whether the intensity of the call-out attribute was strong enough.

Entering a new market

One of our clients developed a product aimed at a market segment that they weren’t playing in at the time. They wanted to make sure that their product delivered on the same level of quality as the main competitors and if not, how they could improve. Using sensory benchmarking, we were able to compare how their prototype fitted into the existing sensory landscape and to provide guidelines for delivering up to expectations.

In a similar situation as the bottle variation example, one of our client’s wanted to solve a dispute between a raw material supplier and a buyer. An independent opinion regarding the acceptability of the raw material was the only way of find a solution to the problem.

We’re excited to see how we can solve your sensory problems this year.


A collaborative project on Sauvignon Blanc from the Constantia Valley

Teamwork makes the dream work!

Thanks to the participation of a great team of Constantia winemakers, we were able to map out the sensory profiles of 2018 Constantia Sauvignon Blanc wines.

How we did it – Projective Mapping

Our trained sensory panellists used the projective mapping technique to evaluate the wines. Projective mapping is a rapid sensory profiling method where panellists position wines on an A3 sheet of paper according to how different or similar they are. The more similar, the closer together, the more different, the further apart. Each panellists also provides free comments on what made the wines similar or different from each other. Now, throughout my career as a sensory scientist, and note that I did my PhD on projective mapping, I am always surprised that a method that seems so haphazard actually produces high quality results. Sometimes, projective mapping data can be difficult to interpret, but in the end the results always make sense. Projective mapping is a great tool to get an holistic view of a product category – in this case Sauvignon Blanc wines from Constantia.

What we found

Unlike the study we did last year on Durbanville Sauvignon Blanc wines, the Constantia wines covered the whole sensory spectrum associated with Sauvignon Blanc. The wines varied from light and acidic to rich and ripe to green and fresh. The terms passionfruit, guava and grassy were used most often to describe the Sauvignon blanc wines from this region.

This image shows all the words that were associated with the Sauvignon Blanc wines submitted to the study.

SenseLab sensory profiling of Constantia Sauvignon Blanc

Sensory descriptors that describes Sauvignon Blanc wines from Constantia









In contrast, these are the descriptors that we found to be most prominent in our study on 2017 Durbanville Sauvignon Blanc wines last year.


SenseLabsensory evaluation of Durbanville Sauvignon Blancc

Descriptors describing Durbanville Sauvignon Blanc 2017 vintage

Thank you to the winemakers from Steenberg, Constantia Uitsig, Constantia Glen, Klein Constantia, Groot Constantia and Buiteverwachting for their participation in this collaborative project.

We look forward to collaborating with other wine regions on other cultivars. Stellenbosch Cab Franc anyone?



More Sales Through Product Confidence

It’s not every day that I get to share the results from a client’s benchmarking study so this is a very exciting opportunity for me!

The client

My client was a boutique winemaker who started making wine in 2007. At first she struggled with quality as she didn’t have formal training. She received a lot of negative feedback regarding her wine and it really knocked her confidence. Imagine going to a wine retailer and trying to sell a wine that you don’t believe in. Impossible!

As she grew as a winemaker, her wines became better and better up to the point where she received a gold medal from the South African Women’s Wine and Spirits Awards. Yet, she still didn’t believe in her product.

The epiphany

My client considered this fact…there is a wine on the market that sells for R980 per bottle – wine made from the same grape variety growing on the same soil as hers. My client’s wine retails for R155 per bottle. Was her wine really so much worse than the R980 per bottle wine?

Of course she asked SenseLab to put the theory to the test. We tested a range of wines of the same varietal and region ranging from R60 per bottle to R980 per bottle using our trained sensory panel as a measuring instrument.

What we found

Here is the product map that we generated with our data from the trained panel who tasted the wine. I’m not going to go into too much detail, but notice this. All the cult wines positioned towards the top of the map…along with my client’s wine.

Wine Benchmarking with SenseLab

What’s more…when we did a direct one-on-one comparison of my client’s wine against the two cult wines in the set, their profiles matched very closely.

The end result

Now my client knew that her wine was of the highest quality and she gained a lot of confidence in her product. And it shows…her sales increased with 60% after she did the study with SenseLab.

There you have it: confidence is key. And independent scientific backing is the key to confidence and certainty.




Embracing Collaboration in the Wine Industry

SenseLab is all about collaboration. Part of my vision when I started SenseLab was to bring the wine industry together by offering sensory science services to one and all.

What better way to collaborate than to collaborate on projects?

The Durbanville Sauvignon Blanc case study

In a trial run at the start of this year, we got all the 2017 entry-level Sauvignon Blanc wines from the Durbanville wine region together. We designed an experiment and gave the wines to our highly trained sensory panel to taste. We ran the data through statistical analysis (yes… biometry is a useful subject) using some pretty sophisticated software and slapped together a sensory map.

What is a sensory map?

A sensory map is a 2-D picture that gives you the lay of the land of a given set of wines based on their sensory profiles. You can see which wines are different and which wines are similar and more importantly WHY.

Wait, let me show you.

The Durbanville Sauvignon Blanc map looked like this:

Sensory Map

Wait what?

Here’s how you read it…

Wines at the top of the map are more fruity and sweet-associated (sweet flavours as opposed to high RS). Wines at the bottom of the map are greener and more crisp. Wines to the left of the map are fresher and wines to the right of the map are richer and fuller.

The Durbanville Sauvignon Blanc category is predominantly fresh and fruity although differentiating wine styles exist offering consumers a refreshing and exciting mix on entry-level Sauvignon blanc wines. Now we know.

We could have gone into a lot more detail..but just so you know…we really love the wine industry and we did this one for FREE!

We want more!

We were so excited about the feeling of collaboration on this project that we want to do more. The options are endless! Top Pinot Noirs from the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, Sauvignon Blanc from Constantia, Bordeaux blends from Stellenbosch. Chardonnay from Robertson.

So here’s the concept

We will donate some of our time and in exchange for a nominal fee from each participating winery, we will generate a product map of the category that we’re looking at. Team work makes the dream work! Then, if you’re really interested in how your wine is doing, we can generate a full report for the curious winemaker in exchange for some moolah. We love you, but we’re not the Red Cross.

We need your help

We are talking massive collaboration opportunities. But we can’t organize everything alone. We need to know what you want. We want to know with whom you want to collaborate. We need some guidance in order to give you some insights into your products.

So if you have a really cool idea for a collaboration…pop us an email at info@senselab.co.za