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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



We’re Now Servicing the Essential Oils Industry

We’re very excited to announce that we have expanded into the essential oils industry. This stems from an informal partnership with the biotechnology experts at SciCorp Laboratories.

Together with SciCorp Laboratories we are offering a highly specialized fingerprinting package that includes chemical and sensory profiling (trained panel and/or consumer panels depending on the requirement). For tea tree oil we have expanded the package to include genotyping, looking at 20 markers, and we’re hoping to expand this capability to other oils soon. Of course, in line with our promise to offer services tailored to our clients’ needs, these analyses are available on an individual basis too.

Why fingerprint your essential oil product?

Your product’s chemical composition is linked to its quality, in terms of efficacy and the sensory experience of the end-user. The product’s chemical composition is one of the best indicators for quality. Due to synergies between compounds, it is only with sensory analysis that you can determine what the end-user will experience when they use your product.

Whether you profile your product to generate a gold standard against which all subsequent batches can be compared or whether you want to see how your product stacks up against the competitor – profiling is the key to a consistently better product.

For tea tree oil breeders we also offer genotyping services. Genotyping is a gateway into predictive breeding which will assist in yield optimization through ensuring that your cutting material is suited to your agricultural environment and that your agricultural processes are suited to the cutting material’s needs for optimal yield.

In short, we want to help essential oil producers to optimize their oils in terms of yield and quality.

Contact us to discuss your essential oil analyses needs.


Small Businesses Should Invest In Consumer Research Too – What’s Stopping Them And How To Change That

Small, Medium and Micro-sized Enterprises, or SMMEs, are important. In the USA, SMMEs create roughly 30% of nett new jobs and account for about 40% of economic activity. Only half of US small businesses make it through their first five years. In South Africa, the outlook is even worse: 70% of businesses fail within their first two years. (Luckily SenseLab is part of the remaining 30% – phew!). In the USA, the number one cause of business failure is that there weren’t a market for the product or service. What we can take out from that is that connecting with your consumer or customer from the get-go is an important strategy for creating a sustainable business.

The main challenges for SMMEs

  • Engaging in a consumer-centric business models by understanding consumers’ unmet needs
  • Building a sustainable business by reacting to those unmet needs with a product that their consumers will love

But what is keeping SMMEs from taking this approach to creating a business that works?

Looking at the SA alcoholic beverage industry as a case study

There are just over 400 wine cellars in South Africa. 45% of those contribute to only 10% of the total annual harvest. What’s more, only 15% of wine cellars in South Africa make a sustainable profit.

In the same vein, there are over 700 craft beer products on the market that competes for less than 1% of the total beer market.

In both the cases of wine and beer, we see many small businesses competing for a small bite of a massive and oversaturated market – and are struggling to survive.

Understanding the consumer plays a pivotal role in survival – what’s keeping SMMEs from using this approach?

There are a number of barriers that prevents SMMEs in the liquor industry from engaging in consumer research:

  • Lack of awareness
  • Perception that it is unnecessary
  • Cost prohibitive
  • Scope not aligned with research budget
  • Perception that it won’t be helpful
  • The timing is wrong

Let’s unpack these one by one

Lack of awareness

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that many small companies are unaware of:

  • The existence of formal consumer and sensory research
  • The value that it can add to their business and product development process

Without a clear view of the benefits to them, they are unlikely to spend on consumer research. The solution is that experts must communicate the tangible value (what problems can consumer research solve) on technical and social platforms. Clients must understand exactly what the can (and cannot) get from formal consumer research.

Perception that consumer research won’t be helpful

These are some very real comments that I have heard from small businesses regarding why they do not invest in consumer research. It can be sectioned into two belief systems: “I know better” and “I don’t trust it.” If a belief is very much ingrained, it is hard to change that belief. However, only target market consumers can tell you what they want – and you have to be very sure that your preferences and perceptions are aligned with that of your consumers if you’re going to take this attitude towards meeting consumers’ unmet needs.


Perception that consumer research is not necessary

As for the lack of trust. Yes, there is always a risk that your product will fail, no matter what you do. But if consumer research has failed you in the past, you have to ask yourself whether you have reacted to the voice of the consumer in the right way. This always makes me think of the very first case of consumer research that I was involved in. The company wanted to introduce a new product aimed at young black male consumers. The product tested very well and it was decided to go ahead with the launch. However, the advertising material was doing anything but speaking to the target market tested in the consumer research – very poor execution of the learnings from the research – and unsurprisingly the product failed.

Consumer research is cost-prohibitive

Many food start-ups simply do not have the cashflow to invest in proper consumer research. Sadly, I see many such cases in the alcoholic beverage industry where there is a lot of scope for innovation, but also lots of room for failure. As service providers, we must have options available that fit a tighter budget. Sometimes 80% of an answer is better than no answer.

Some indicate that when they have established their business and reached a certain threshold that they will look into investing in consumer research – but they need to know exactly where the funds are going to and what they will get for their money. We need to be clear and transparent about how different testing parameters impact on cost. And more importantly, we have to be honest and realistic about when the cost outweighs the benefits.

The scope and budget is mis-aligned

Sometimes there is interest in understanding the underlying factors that drive purchasing behaviour but the client struggles to refine their thoughts to a concept that can be measured within a reasonable budget. In this case, we need to phase the project by starting with the most important questions that can provide actionable insights that is within the immediate budget.

In another case the client might define the target market so minutely that it becomes impossible to recruit cost-efficiently. We need to determine the customer’s recruiting budget and recruit accordingly as close as possible to the original requirement.

It won’t be helpful

This is especially relevant to the wine industry. Smaller producers may feel that they have limited variety of product inputs therefore limited options for product development changes post research.

However, great taste is such a big driver of purchasing behaviour that it doesn’t make sense not to involve the voice of the consumer.

Using  a method like CATA with consumers can identify how the current product compares to an ideal product and where the current product is being penalized. An attribute that is unavoidable given the cellar/vineyard restrictions might not be penalizing at all.

The final step is partnering with knowledgeable viticulturists and oenologists to provide expert guidance in product optimisation now that the winery has a clear view of which attributes are required and more importantly which attributes should be eliminated.

The timing is wrong

SMMEs can get a new product to market faster than larger food companies due to fewer check points. Consumer research is one of these check points and it is tempting to skip this phase when they already trust their gut. By reducing the scope of the consumer research study lead times can be shortened for a rapid response. Providing topline results as early as possible can help decision makers to move forward more quickly in some cases.

The researcher’s responsibility

The SO-WHAT and WHAT NOW of a consumer research study need to be clear – and this can only be clear if we ask the consumers the right questions.

It is our responsibility to convince SMME clients that listening to consumers will help them profit in the long run and to guide them through the process so that they get the value that they are paying for. And this is SenseLab’s quality promise.

Invest in your business success – Contact us to enquire about consumer research


Published in Wineland Magazine!

Our collaborative article with Stellenbosch University on sensory benchmarking in the wine industry was published in the Jan/Feb edition of Wineland Magazine! Here is the link to the article.

Sensory Benchmarking in the Wine Industry – When, Why, How


Our second article was published in the March edition of Wineland magazine on page 77.

Sensoriese maatstaftoetsing van wyn (Deel 2): Die voor- en nadele van drie geskikte sensoriese metodes. 

The English version can be found on LinkedIn.

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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.


Shaking it up in the dairy industry

Dairy meets alcohol

SenseLab started out in the alcoholic beverage market, so now that we are entrenching ourselves in the dairy industry, dairy innovations inspired by alcoholic drinks are especially exciting to us.

Häagen-Dazs has recently launched a range of alcohol-flavoured ice creams infused with real alcohol (0.5% ABV). Flavours such as Bourbon, Rum, Amaretto, Irish Cream, and Stout are enticing new additions to their existing range and will certainly appeal to adult consumers.

The winner of the 2018 World Dairy Innovation Awards was Amul with its Irish Drink Mocktail. Amul, India’s dairy brand leader, stole the show by producing an Irish Cream inspired milk drink. And the judges were obviously impressed!

SenseLab and the dairy industry

After a jam packed road show showcasing our joint capabilities with Consumers In Focus, we have had dairy projects streaming in at a rapid pace. It is so exciting to know that dairy companies in South Africa are investing in research to develop delicious new products as well as entrench their leadership with existing products and brands.

Our trained panel is doing a brilliant job in defining a lexicon for the appearance, smell, flavour, taste and mouthfeel of the dairy products that we’re working on as well as measuring the intensity of these attributes in our test products. And as an added bonus, it’s much more pleasant to taste sweet dairy products early in the morning as opposed to tannic red wines.

I’m excited about the value that we are adding to the dairy industry and I’m convinced that we will soon be seeing loads of new innovative products in this segment as a result of investing in SenseLab’s proprietary methodologies.

Join the conversation

If you have an exciting new idea for a dairy product innovation, contact us to find out how we can help with your R&D with our new found passion for the dairy industry.





We Now Provide Tasting Notes for Boutique Cellars

Sensory profiling with a trained panel can be very expensive, even when using cost-saving rapid sensory profiling methods. More often than not, boutique wineries simply do not have the research budget to justify the sensory profiling of their product with a trained panel.

We want to help everyone in the wine industry

However, we aim to include everyone in the wine industry here at SenseLab, and have now launched a tasting note service where our clients’ products are tasted by a product expert with the option of a preference ranking.

Of course, using an individual instead of a trained panel means that the results can not be used in any form of statistical testing, but as the samples are tasted blind, our pro-taster’s rich vocabulary and objectivity provides an independent view on our client’s wines.

We already have happy return customers who have put their trust in our expertise for notes on fining trials, precision viticulture trials and more.

How does it work?

Wines can be submitted and delivered to SenseLab at a cost of R100 per wine. Results can be expected within two working days. Prior arrangement is critical.

Feel free to contact us if you want to learn more about this service and how it can benefit your boutique winemaking operation.


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?



Three Causes of Bottle Variation

We have received quite a few problem solving requests regarding bottle variation since we’ve opened our doors in February. This phenomenon causes significant concern, even if the difference between the bottles is not significantly perceivable under laboratory conditions.

What causes bottle variation?

There are several factors that influence the occurrence of bottle variation, but I’m going to focus on three.

Oxygen exposure

Wines with cork closures are expected to show some level of bottle variation especially after some ageing. Cork is a natural product and variation in oxygen transmission rates can be expected. However, these differences should be subtle. In some cases, the level of oxygen exposure can be so severe that it is detrimental to the wine’s sensory profile which can lead to lower repurchase rates.

Cork suppliers

Using different cork suppliers for the same wine can also result in bottle variation. Some believe that using different suppliers for the same wine comes down to not keeping your eggs in one basket – a strategy to play it safe in terms of cork taint. However, we have seen that differences between different cork suppliers can be perceived by extremely sensitive tasters, even if it’s not at a statistically significant level at a group level. If you know your cork suppliers’ products really well, this is can be a good risk-avoidance strategy in dealing with cork taint. The fall-out from cork taint is after all more severe than that of bottle variation. However, there will be a small risk of bottle variation.

Storage conditions

Studies have shown that storing wine at different storage conditions have a significant effect on the wines’ sensory profiles. In fact, storage temperature has a much greater effect on the stability of a wine’s sensory profile than differences between closures. Closely related to the sensory profiles of wine, it was also found that the wines’ volatile, polyphenol, tannin and anthocyanin composition was also affect significantly by storage temperature. Perhaps more importantly, fluctuating storage temperatures have a much greater effect than wines that were stored at a stable high temperature.

Sensory tests to determine whether bottle variation is significant

To determine whether bottle variation can be picked up by the average consumer, the best strategy is to do a difference test. There are many options.

Triangle test

The most common test is a triangle test where panellists are given three products of which two are from the same bottle and one is from a different bottle. The panellists are asked to identify the odd one out. If enough panellists can recognize the odd sample, the perceivable difference is said to be significant.

Difference from Control test (DFC)

Another option is a DFC test. In this case, the panellists are given a reference sample, a blind control and a test sample and are asked to rate the blind control and the test sample in terms of how much they differ from the reference sample. One of the pro’s of this test is that it gives you the degree of difference. E.g. if a difference can be perceived, how large is the difference and is it still acceptable?

If you have an issue with bottle variation you can send your request to SenseLab at info@senselab.co.za


Benchmarking Your Wine

Feedback from the SASEV Conference workshop on all things sensory

I was invited to talk about benchmarking wine at the SASEV conference workshop on rapid sensory profiling methods on 2 October at the NH Charles Hotel in Somerset West. Having loads of experience in benchmarking wine since the start of my career as a sensory scientist in 2007, I had loads to share.

Jeanne Brand from the Stellenbosch University covered the technical aspects of rapid sensory profiling (which happens to be SenseLab’s strong suit and the reason why we can offer benchmarking exercises at an affordable price). With the technical aspects already covered, I approached my talk as a story telling experience during which I shared my experiences with benchmarking wine over the past decade.

Why benchmark your wine?

There are numerous reasons why a wine producer would want to benchmark their wine, but I focussed on four key reasons:

  • Penetrating new markets
  • Gaining product knowledge and confidence in sales
  • Understanding why your brand under performs
  • Positioning your brand in a new price category

Why Now?

  • Vine yields have been low for the past few vintages and there is a shortage in wine supply. It is therefore all the more important to have the right wine on the shelf.
  • Consumers are feeling the pinch in their pocket and want value for their money – whether they are buying an entry-level wine or an iconic wine. It is the wine producer’s responsibility to deliver on their quality promise
  • Recent advances in sensory science has made it possible to customize benchmarking exercises with cost-efficient methodologies

Why descriptive analysis is better than bench-top tastings

Of course you can line up a set of wines on a bench in your cellar and taste them blind, making some comments and perhaps give a quality score. This is good for a rough idea of what’s going on. But how are you going to compile visualize the data to get a clear view of what’s happening in the category that you’re looking at? There will always be bias, even though you taste blind – think serving order effects and the cellar palate phenomenon just to name a few examples of bias.

With descriptive analysis – albeit conventional or rapid – you have different tools for different levels of detail and cost efficiency. You can visualize your data and overlay other data such as sales volumes, price point, and chemical data. You simply get a lot more out of your efforts.

Time for story-telling

Penetrating new markets

In the first case that I have worked on, the client wanted to penetrate three international markets. At that point their wine was already on the shelf but sales were slow. The client decided to choose a selection of wines in the same price category that had the most sales to compare with their wine. They tested their brand with two varietals. In all six cases their wine was more green and savoury compared to the competitor products. The sensory attributes that differentiated their brand from the rest of the wines could be traced back to vineyard practices and oak maturation. The client made adjustments to their canopy management regime and with regular sense-checks they managed to track their performance until they reached the desired wine style that drove volumes in the respective markets that they tested in.

Product knowledge and confidence

See our post on the Product Confidence case study

Understanding why your brand under performs

There are several reasons why a brand can under perform – poor distribution, lack of or improper advertising or marketing, issues with price point or…your wine may simply  not deliver on consumers likes and expectations. In today’s economic climate it is unwise to keep SKUs that under performs, but first you need to understand WHY.

If it is a taste issue, a sensory benchmarking will be able to point you in the right direction. A direct comparison with category champions in the same price range will quickly tell you whether your wine stacks up against its competitors. If you have comparable taste profiles, you maybe have to look at other factors. If you don’t – do you need to improve on quality or can you sell your differentiating wine as a unique selling point? Your choice.

If you are really serious in understanding why your brand is not doing as well as it should, consumer research may be the answer. Different target markets have different preferences for wine and it is important to understand who likes your wine and why but also who dislikes your wine and why. Often it is the anti-drivers of liking that plays a more important role than drivers of liking. If you have limited options in changing your wine’s intrinsic – you need to find the target market that will like your profile and sell to them instead of taking a shotgun approach

Positioning your brand in a new price category

One of my clients performed very well in the BIB market but wanted to penetrate the premium bottled wine market. This was an easy exercise. We took the market leaders in the category and benchmarked it against a blend that our client wanted to use for this aim. We were able to identify the differences between our client’s blends and the market leader as well as strategies for creating a blend that would match the market leader’s sensory profile.

A final note

My final words were on why you should  use an independent service provider – like SenseLab – for your benchmarking studies. I have compiled this pitch in a separate post and you can read about why you need an independent service provider here.