How technology is transforming the wine trade

By Jack Flanagan on January 23rd, 2014

It is a new age in winemaking. The old days of doing everything by hand is ending. And while large-scale harvesters and flood-lights might not be news, the vintners of tomorrow have a few tricks up their sleeves.

europe-map_wine

France is still the world’s largest producer of wine, followed by Italy and Spain. They also produce the world’s best wines, according to amateur opinion and competitions. Vineyard ownership, which is often hereditary, brings with it a huge responsibility to get a perfect vintage out year after year.

It isn’t easy. Anyone who’s ever tried their hand at gardening anything beyond a Yucca plant will know that plants can be extremely particular, be that the soil, moisture, season or light they get. Raising hundreds of acres of grapes, so that they all provide a world-class wine, is no mean feat.

So, vintners have innovated.

New Technologies

Of course, they have been innovating for hundreds of years. Pest-resistant strains have been bred, along with vines that grow more berries and less leaves (although it means they need 20% more water). The use of Harvesters instead of hands is also a recent addition – wine connoisseurs in the past have been known to call it “cheating”, and believe it might even affect the taste. So anything new in such a venerated tradition doesn’t come without controversy.

A wine harvester

And yet as advanced technology, the sort-of thing that requires a Masters of Science to understand, becomes available at lower prices (well, hovering among the thousands), vineyards in France and areas outside are adopting them.

Vineyard drone in action

Perhaps least surprising, if you’ve noticed a trend lately, is the addition of drones. Right now, they have a simple task: flying over vineyards, checking for damage or anything suspicious.

In the future, however, they may be required to do more labour-intensive tasks such as vine maintenance, e.g. pruning and checking how ripe the grapes are. This, specifically, is the task of a little droid resembling a rover: it skates along the vineyard floor, analysing and remembering the details of the vines. If they’re getting too long, the robot prunes them back.

Example of a vineyard heat map

Example of a vineyard heat map

Robots are one thing, and satellites another. Vineyards yet again in France are using satellites to create “heat maps” which detect infrared rays. These rays are indirect indicators of photosynthesis activity, which tells us how productive a valley is being. When the stakes are high and every bottle needs to be a winner, knowing the good plots from the bad is essential.

And then there are cameras. “Optical sorting” is a processes that sorts the good grapes from the bad. Grapes, de-stemmed, are placed on a vibrating metal plate to separate them. A conveyor belt then passes them under a bright halogen light, where a camera then captures each grape. The camera looks at shape, size, and colour and compares them with the winemaker’s settings. If a berry isn’t up to scratch, a puff of air sends it on its way, while the others are retained for wine-making.

Out in the fields, a large camera, resembling a flood light, can measure pigmentation in the grapes. Basically, an extraordinarily precise way of finding out whether the grape is ripe or not.

There are a host of smaller, less dramatic, but nonetheless essential new technologies in winemaking. Vinperfect, a startup based in Napa Valley, California, seeks to answer the “Closure question”.

VinPerfect screw caps

VinPerfect screw caps

Wine gets corked because it allows some air to get through, and helps mature the wine. The problem is that there is no guarantee how much air will get through, and how that will affect the taste of the wine. Vinperfect’s patent-pending solution is screw caps, which allows vintners to regulate the flow of oxygen into their wine. A fine science indeed.

Innovations are coming thick and fast in the winemaking industry. It’s not easy: this isn’t fast food. Many new technologies face a backlash from connoisseurs who invariably think that the traditional methods are the best. Whether or not there’s truth to that, is down to the finest tastebuds.