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


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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.



Why Use An Independent Service Provider for Wine Sensory Benchmarking

When I pitch for benchmarking projects with prospective clients I sometimes get comments along the lines of “I have a very advanced palate” or “I do all my tastings myself” or even “I don’t like graphs” (gasp!).

It’s all fine and well to buy a batch of wines, lining them up and tasting them (hopefully) blind, making a few tasting comments and maybe giving a quality score. That’s okay if you want a rough idea of the lay of the land.

If that’s your only approach to benchmarking wine, then you are missing out.

Using descriptive analysis for benchmarking

There are many forms of descriptive sensory analysis ranging from very expensive and time consuming conventional methods to easy and fast (and cheap) rapid sensory profiling methods. The Stellenbosch University is currently working on a web application to help winemakers use descriptive analysis in their own environment. I’ve seen the demo and it looks great! Can’t wait to use it myself.

The benefits of descriptive analysis are that:

  • You can visualize your data to make more informed conclusions
  • You can overlay your results with other data types such as sales volumes, retail price, chemical analysis and consumer preference

Why use an independent service provider?

For wine producers who are dissatisfied with uncertainty in their benchmarking procedures, benchmarking with an independent service provider provides 100% unbiased and objective results with scientific certainty.

Using an independent service provider means that you have certainty that:

  • The panellists have proven sensory acuity and are trained to follow sensory science procedures
  • You have enough panellists for data integrity
  • The tasting is done under laboratory conditions and with an experiment design that eliminates all bias
  • Sensory scientists have strong understanding of data structure and statistics and can interpret results correctly

Unlike at-home benchmarking tastings, using an independent service provider

  • Eliminates the cellar palate phenomenon,
  • Avoids having the opinion of someone higher up in the hierarchy dominate the rest of the group’s opinion
  • Avoids basing the outcome on one person’s opinion only

Click here to enquire about pricing for benchmarking your wine.


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.




Welcome to the New Order

Two words: Sensory Science

Australia and the USA’s wine industries have bought into this powerful concept many years ago, but in SA, sensory science is still considered a niche field, especially in the wine industry. For the longest time, wine giants have had the monopoly on this valuable tool, but now, with the launch of SenseLab, the benefits of sensory science is available to all wineries in SA.

What is sensory science?

Sensory science (or sensory evaluation) is a scientific discipline that applies principles of experimental design and statistical analysis to the use of human senses (sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing) for the purposes of evaluating consumer products.

Who does the evaluation?

Sensory scientists talks to three types of panels

  • Expert panels: These consist of a small group of industry experts with proven sensory acuity. They are responsible for measuring QUALITY
  • Trained panels: These consist of a small group of non-industry individuals with proven sensory acuity and the ability to accurately measure defined sensory attributes in wine. They are responsible for measuring SENSORY CHARACTERISTICS
  • Consumer panels: These consist of large groups of consumers selected based on target market parameters. They are responsible for measuring LIKING/PREFERENCE.

One name: SenseLab

We are a small independent sensory science agency that helps winemakers and wine marketers create wines that consumers love. SenseLab’s scientific product testing provides wine producers with insights into what wine drinkers prefer…so that you can make clearly informed decisions and sell more of the right wine to the right consumer.

Sounds like magic?

No, it is pure science – taking the physiology of the senses and the psychology of the taster to create 100% independent, 100% scientific and 100% unbiased sensory evaluation results.

From consumer testing to problem solving in the cellar to simple tasting notes, SenseLab offers services to every kind of winery.

If this sounds like the kind of certainty that you’d like in your wine production and marketing processes, keep your eyes peeled for case studies, examples, and feedback reports from the SenseLab website or contact us directly to discuss how your wine can benefit from the advances of sensory science.