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Winemakers Need Space to Make Good Wines

Advancements in satellite imagery may help some vignerons grow the perfect crop

Tina Benitez
Posted: September 8, 2008

Most winemakers know that the root of superb wine is in the soil of the vineyard. Now, new advancements in satellite imagery are helping growers worldwide to look deeper into their vineyards' soil and better assess vine vigor, growth patterns and overall grape quality during harvest. The latest technology, Oenoview, or "Wine View," is a French satellite imaging technology that provides vignerons with greater insight into their terroir.

For the French, particularly smaller producers who have experienced declining sales in recent years, the new technology may provide a welcome edge in the competitive international market. But while this satellite imaging may be the future of winemaking, it hasn't quite caught on yet because of its high cost.

Oenoview was developed by Infoterra—a Toulouse-based geological information provider—and French viticultural consultants ICV, in partnership with a cooperative near Montpellier in the Languedoc region. The technology combines satellite imaging and aerial photographs and is currently being tested at the Languedoc co-op, near Infoterra and ICV headquarters. Oenoview can show detailed, near-infrared images of the water level of soil, the amount of leaf canopy surface area, the size of grape clusters, and the presence of certain minerals. It can also track the spread of disease and help pinpoint vine vigor. In initial tests, winemakers were given detailed individual maps that indicated more vigorous areas of their vineyards.

This is not the first time that satellites have been used in winemaking. In the 1990s, the Robert Mondavi Winery explored the benefits of imaging in response to an outbreak of phylloxera, and the results were effective. Scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center got a close-up view of the aphid infestation. In 2003, Mondavi, along with Dehlinger Vineyard, took part in a USDA study of the vineyard that used ground-penetrable radar to determine soil moisture by firing electromagnetic signals into the ground. The findings showed where and when to irrigate and harvest.

Mondavi continues to use high resolution imaging to help with vineyard management. Once a year, staffers receive a detailed report and photo for each vineyard showing Normalized Differential Vigor Index, a measurement based on high-resolution imaging that color-codes the vineyard based on moisture, fruit and leaf growth, and other factors. (Terra Spase, a California vineyard consulting company, also uses remote-sensing imagery to help its clients.)

In 2003, the European Space Agency (ESA), headquartered in Paris, and the European Commission formed their own vineyard satellite imagery program, called Bacchus, that captures images at extremely high resolutions to assess different vineyard parameters, including slope, altitude, sun exposure, soil conditions, and even acidity and Brix levels. The ESA is currently testing Bacchus in Italy's Frascati region, just south of Rome, with the help of various Italian partners. The project incorporates more high-resolution images from space and air using a network of sensors, both orbital and on the ground, that track environmental activity in the vineyards and show the results in real time via Internet-based software.

Matt Ashby, director of vineyard operations at Mondavi, believes satellite imaging is the future of quality winemaking. But right now it's an expensive technology. It also requires patience. "It's a slow process," said Ashby. "Within a small vineyard, whether it's a 10-acre or a 2-acre field, ideally it all ripens at the same time. But if there are differences, we want to grow the vines differently. If we know an area is weaker, we can respect that weakness, give a vine more water, different pruning, a little more fertilizer, [or] less fertilizer. We want to tease out those little differences in proportion to what the soil type is."

While the expense gives many winemakers pause, Oenoview's developers believe more French winemakers will want to use the technology as competition from the United States, Italy and Spain increases. Infoterra is hoping to expand to the rest of France and elsewhere. "Certainly, there is a question of cost," said Hervé Poilve, research and development manager at Infoterra. "In order for service to be beneficial, we need to get a sufficient number of customers, so we can get the satellite image and produce the individual maps for all of them."

As such tools become more common, they may rapidly become more affordable. "Customers wish to have assured quality," said Luigi Fusco, senior adviser for earth observation applications at the ESA. "Here is the start of traceability of quality and of the winemaking process."

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