Wine production controlled through new technology
Recently, our Digital Vineyard research project featured in the Australian Financial Review. The article below was penned by Emily Parkinson and published online March 9 2016.
The absence of absolute control over the grape-growing process has always been part of the charm of winemaking.
But now a new generation of sensor-driven viticulture tools is giving growers the ability to monitor and measure their vines like never before.
Remote sensors with the ability to detect everything from how much water a plant is storing to how much light is falling on the ripening grape are revealing valuable information about just how variable the biosphere of a single vineyard can be.
"There is no such thing as a uniform vineyard," says Rob Bramley, senior principal research scientist at CSIRO and expert in precision agriculture. "Imagine a vineyard where, at one end, the fruit was suitable as a high-value product, such as Grange for instance, and at the other end it was more like Chateau cardboard. Obviously, you want to keep those two areas separate, even though they occur in the same vineyard. There is a lot of money to be made in technologies that understand that."
As part of a global Vineyard of the Future collaboration, researchers at The University of Adelaide have developed an app to help grape growers monitor the growth of the vineyard "canopy".
Launched last year, the VitiCanopy app allows a winemaker to get a quick reading on vine growth to help make decisions about the balance between leaf and fruit growth.
Users can take a picture of the vine using their smartphone, which then returns a reading or measure of the "vigour" of the canopy.
Measure of light penetration
Three years in development, the technology is designed to help farmers assess whether there is enough light penetration to the fruit zone, which in turn feeds into the colour, flavour and aroma of the grape.
The free, downloadable app is now being used by winemakers in South America, Spain, Germany and China, according to Professor Sigfredo Fuentes, a senior lecturer in wine science at the University of Melbourne, who co-developed the app as part of the global Vineyard of the Future initiative.
Novel applications such as those used in Vineyard of the Future use inexpensive sensor technology – for instance thermal and GPS sensors mounted to drones or "multicopters" – to collect data on all aspects of grapevine physiology, from vine growth to water and nutrient status.
That data can be particularly powerful for those winemakers in gaining the upper hand over the effects of a changing climate on their grapes, Fuentes says.
"Hotter weather has meant grapes are generally now harvested earlier than has historically been the case," he says, a practice that alters the structure of the grape and, in turn, contributes to the higher incidence of berry shrivel in Australian grapes, particularly shiraz.
"Shiraz is really sensitive to berry shrivel and usually a normal rate of berry shrivel in shiraz in Australia is 30 per cent, but you can find up to 50 per cent in the Barossa in heatwave conditions, particularly when the [grapes] encounter a heatwave close to harvest – that is really bad. Obviously yield suffers, but so does quality – all the enzymes and colour is degraded, you have a higher concentration of sugar, which gives you high alcohol with a really low-quality wine."
Data from thermal maps can help stamp out problems such as berry shrivel and assist in controlling the alcohol content in wines, Fuentes says.
Rest of world's caught up
Rabobank senior wine and grape analyst Marc Soccio says innovation and technology has played an important role in the past success of the Australian wine industry: "refrigeration in wineries, tank infrastructure, Stelvin screw caps – these sorts of innovations have been very important output from [research and development] within the Australian wine industry, but over the past 10 years, much of the world has caught up on a lot of the innovations that gave our industry its early advantage in producing very cost-effective, quality wine," he says.
"The playing field has been levelled somewhat. It's been a difficult 10 years for Australian wine and we need to regain that edge in global markets," Soccio says. "We need to continue to invest pretty heavily in science and innovation and R&D. Fortunately, the Australian wine industry has these bodies in place to help resource and research these sorts of innovations."
Working from the assumption of precision viticulture – which is that grape-growing landscapes are inherently variable and need to be managed as such – enabling technologies are a powerful tool in revealing those variations, Bramley says.
"Most boundaries around vineyards or sugar cane fields are accidents of fate and fences have no biophysical meaning at all. The variation in the land continues underneath," Bramley says. "That being the case, having access to some technologies that help you understand that variability then gives you an ability to react to it in different ways; for instance, harvesting fruit into different product streams to achieve variation in blends."
Bramley is an expert in precision agriculture and one of the researchers responsible for the first wine-grape yield map in 1999.
That development laid the foundations for the modern practice of precision viticulture, and precision agriculture as applied to other crops such as wheat and sugar. But gone are the days of having a single measure of yield – or a straightforward average of the amount of fruit a defined area of land produced, he says. Now yield monitors and newer sensor technologies mean winemakers have "many thousands of measures of yield" and access to detailed maps of how yield is distributed.
"What these spatial technologies and linking of sensors and GPS allows you to do, is measure things at a much higher resolution, or spatial intensity, than has ever been possible before," Bramley says.
"People are starting to use technologies that allow them to understand about that sort of variability, because there is a lot of money to be made in getting things right. It's like the saying: you can't manage what you can't measure."
MNSI are hosting The Digital Vineyard research seminar on 28 April 2016 for those who wish to learn more about our project and meet the team. It is a free event but we ask attendees to register so we may cater to numbers.