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Better Grapes from Outer Space?

Eyes in the sky could help European winemakers decide where to plant, what to plant and when to harvest.

Nick Fauchald
Posted: August 6, 2003

Winemakers across Europe may soon be looking up into space for vineyard planning advice.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has teamed up with the European Commission and 14 private and public parties from Italy, France, Spain and Portugal to form the Bacchus consortium, a project that aims to supply vast amounts of information to winemakers and to their regulating organizations.

The Bacchus project's goal is to map Europe's vineyards in unprecedented detail and help winemakers decide how to best use their land. For example, ESA satellites can capture multiple images (photos, infrared, etc.) of the same site at very detailed resolutions. By linking that data with images of the vineyards taken from airplanes, data gathered on the ground and advanced computer analysis, grapegrowers can obtain detailed information about their vineyards, including altitude, slope, sun exposure, soil type and microclimate data. The satellites can also detect the shape and color of the vines and track their growth.

According to Luigi Fusco, a senior adviser with the ESA, the equation is simple: More information aids better vineyard management, which in turn yields better wines. "We want to improve the quality of the wines, and technology can help us," Fusco said.

By layering this collection of data, called a geographical information system (GIS), project engineers can look at several factors over a period of time and see at once how they affect vine growth in a particular spot. This knowledge could help a winemaker make decisions about the vineyard, from deciding what types of vines will grow best to choosing the ideal time to harvest.

The GIS could also be used to spot untapped, prospective vineyards. "In the past, people would just say, 'Oh, this area is better than that area,'" Fusco said. "Urbanization is already destroying many wine regions. We're trying to promote an objective way to determine the best areas using advanced technology." Alternatively, the data could be used to spot cultivated land on which growing grapes is a waste of vine.

The project began in March in test regions located in the four participating countries: Frascati and Prosecco in Italy, Languedoc-Rousillon in France, La Mancha in Spain and, in Portugal, Vinho Verde, Douro, Bairrada and Palmela. The consortium will continue to gather data throughout this growing season and the summer of 2004, after which it hopes to sell the technology to producers and regional organizations.

"Winemakers, with no relevant knowledge in image processing or data evaluation, will be able to generate their own information coming from ESA data through an easy-to-use system, specially designed to their needs," said Manuel Bea of Madrid-based GEOSYS, one of the contractors involved in the consortium.

Although Bacchus will pioneer this technology in Europe, this isn't the first time information collected in space has helped the wine industry. In 1993, Robert Mondavi Winery in California began using remote-sensing imagery gleaned by airplanes and NASA satellites to track the phylloxera infestation affecting Northern California. In 1995, the winery began using similar techniques to track vineyard data. Other California wineries have since followed suit.

According to Daniel Bosch, director of Mondavi's Napa Valley vineyards, "When you walk down a vineyard, you can taste the differences among grapes, but the patterns are very tough to identify -- it could take years. But once you get the image, you can see the patterns right before your eyes."

For example, Mondavi viticulturalists are learning how certain leaf counts on the vines affect the quality of the grapes, and they are comparing leaf numbers with grape quality over several harvests to determine the optimal amount.

Mondavi has continued to expand the use of GIS in its vineyards. "We now have GPS [global positioning system] units and computers mounted on our tractors," Bosch said. "The computer tells us where the weak and strong areas are, and we can selectively cultivate, even within a single row. It has really increased the uniformity of our vines."

In addition to better land management, the Bacchus project also aims to standardize the process through which winemakers gather data about their vineyards. For quality-control purposes, all European wine-producing countries are required by the Common Market Organization for Wine to record vine cultivation. But there is currently no standard practice of collecting and tracking this data, which makes the creation of a central database almost impossible.

"Nowadays, vineyard inventories are collected from fieldwork and interviews with wine growers and in some cases aerial photography," said Bea. "These methods are extremely time-consuming, and the results are not satisfactory because of the technical limitations."

Bacchus, if launched successfully, would be a major step toward making a central database a reality -- and toward helping each European region perfect the vines and grapes that make its wines so distinctive.

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