Is there a more sensory activity than wine tasting? The aromas, the textures, the length in the mouth, everything is a matter of sensations perceived by the person who drinks the precious nectar. But in 2022, the famous artificial intelligence algorithms are getting involved. And one of the world’s most prestigious and serious wine tasting competitions is betting that everyone will win.

As the doors of the Sports Palace of Rende, a small town in Calabria, Southern Italy, opened, Quentin Havaux could not hide his excitement and nervousness about the next few minutes that would unfold before his eyes. For this young Belgian who manages the organization of the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles alongside his father, Baudouin, seeing more than 300 tasters from all over the world arrive gives him butterflies in his stomach, as it does every year.

More than 300 tasters at the 2022 Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in Rende, Italy

This is obviously not the first time that the Havaux have organized an edition of this great competition that awards quality medals to wines from all over the world. Next year, the 30th anniversary of this competition will take place in Croatia. The “concours”, launched by Louis Havaux, now retired, but still full of vigor in his native Belgium, will be celebrated.

A matter of algorithm

But this year, the family clan from the “flat country” has decided to add an extra task to these expert wine tasting palates: writing tasting comments that will be added to the usual 100-point rating they give to dinstinguish those wines.

Not only will these comments be added to the menu, but they will also be analyzed by an algorithm that will then collect the data from all the tasters and “translate” them into a succinct summary of the good and less good points given by the tasters.

Quentin Havaux

Quentin Havaux, director of Vinopres

“In competitions, everyone does more or less the same thing,” explains Quentin Havaux, director of Vinopres, “and we always want to position ourselves as a leader because we see that the competition is strong and we know that the future, at least that’s our vision, the future is in the data. We think there are competitors that are no longer reliable, so data for us is the most important thing.”

Nuanced comments

So, in addition to the scores out of 100, each taster had to type a summary of their comments on their little tablet. An exercise that for some was a little more complicated than usual, but overall, apart from a few small malfunctioning keyboards, the first day went without too many hiccups.

Tasting notes from The Concours Mondial de Bruxelles

Tasters had to add comments on their tablets

Julien Laithier, chairman of the French start-up Wine Space, who is busy monitoring the process alongside fellow tasters Sylvain Thibaud and Antoine Gérard, explains the concept of artificial intelligence in wine tasting. “We teach the computer everything it needs to do, a whole bunch of words, syntactic constructions so that it understands, as your brain would, the concept of “acidity for example. Then, we teach him the word acid and the word very and it will make the connection. We manage to make it assimilate thousands of words and it will then be able to make links by itself between these concepts.

Julien Laithier, président of WIne Space

Julien Laithier, chairman of Wine Space

Technically then, the algorithm must constantly learn sensory concepts that are far from binary. “For example, among the tasters’ comments, we read a comment stating a crisp and refreshing wine,” adds Syvain Thibaud, CEO of Wine Space. That means there is the notion of high acidity. When the taster writes that there’s a note rather than stone fruit aromas, it means we’re lowering the intensity of that fruit a bit in the final notes.”

The point? To get the best summary of everything that’s been written about the wine and standardize it: “To be able to take every conceivable parameter and translate it into computer language,” adds Laithier.

A work in progress

It remains that the algorithm still needs to be educated in certain cases. For example, the heather aroma (a rather specific tasting note, it must be said) has not yet been detected and assimilated by the artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence at the service of wine tasting

These additional scores should in any case add nuance and some justification to the final rating that will be used to award medals to wines that have distinguished themselves to the tasters’ palates.

“Ideally, the ratings should be close to the written comments,” explains Sylvain Thibaud, but sometimes there are discrepancies. Sometimes tasters write that the wine has lots of flaws, but they gives it 88 points.”

Why the CMB?

The choice to start this experiment in collaboration with the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles was an obvious one, says Julien Laithier. They first started with about 20 tasters in Mexico, then with 50 tasters at the Concours Mondial du Rosé in Spain and recently with 75 experts at the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon.

Tasters’ table at the 29th Concours Mondial de Bruxelles

“The number of comments collected does not complicate the process, it adds processing time,” says the chairman of Wine Space. In the case of the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the more than 300 tasters generated 1.5 million characters on the first day alone. Quite a task for the algorithm.

Moreover, a Belgian, French or North American sommelier has his own references when it comes to analyzing and appreciating a wine. And there again, the artificial intelligence must be educated.

“For example, in Mexico, some tasters did not have the same way of perceiving the vegetal side. They were talking about certain varieties of cactus, and the algorithm has to be taught that.”  Julien Laithier, president of Wine Space

A marketing tool for producers

The great advantage of this incursion of artificial intelligence, according to Quentin Havaux, is quite an asset for the winemaker or owner of a domain who has submitted his wine to the judgment of the tasters’ taste buds. “The producer will receive an honest and blind tasting feedback (which is very rare in the wine world) with this synthesis of tasting comments from professionals with different profiles. He will then be able to use this as a marketing tool with the aroma wheel for example.”

For the taster who participated in the blind exercise, it is also an opportunity to receive at the end of the exercise the list  revealing the wines tasted, their overall rating from the tasters’ table and their own comments on the wine.

A conclusive experience

At the end of this first new-style CMB, Quentin Havaux can breathe a sigh of relief: “At first, everyone thought it would take them longer, but by the second day, it was much smoother and by the third, everyone even finished early.”

QUentin Havaux monitors the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles

Quenin Havaux monitors the progress of the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles

In any case, the Wine Space team can express its satisfaction at the end of the experience. “The main fear was that the jurors would not play the game. Thinking that adding comments could be disturbing for some tasters who are used to rating a wine on a 100 points scale only. We realized that almost 90% of the tasters wrote a lot about each of the wines, so we are happy. It’s more than we hoped for.”

Concours Mondial de Bruxelles
The Concours Mondial de Bruxelles is a pioneer in the collection and analysis of data on the tasted wines

All competitions organized by the CMB will use the same model from now on. Quentin Havaux thinks that his competitors will probably take the same path of artificial intelligence. Who would have thought that the sensory experience of wine tasting would one day be combined with those virtual robots? Welcome to 2022…