The Australian Wine Research Institute said its scientists spent five years trying to find out what gave Shiraz wine its destinctive black pepper fragrance before identifying a single compound responsible for the spicy smell.
The compound, known as alpha-ylangene, is so powerful that a single drop is enough to make an entire Olympic-size swimming pool smell peppery, institute researcher Mango Parker told a wine industry conference.
Parker said the discovery could have major implications for the multi-billion dollar Australian wine industry, as Shiraz constitutes one-fifth of its output and is by far the most popular red variety.
"If you can measure something, you can understand its behaviour and how to control it," she said.
Parker said the discovery meant winemakers may one day alter the pepper aroma in red wine the same way they now alter its characteristics with different yeast varieties or oak barrel fermentation.
While scientific instruments such as a mass spectrometer were used to track down the aroma compound, which has a concentration of one part per billion, Parker said old-fashioned methods were the most effective.
"At the end of the day, a lot of people did a lot of sniffing throughout the research," she said.
"Our noses were our most sensible and relable detectors."