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Farming has certainly not escaped the flood of new-generation technology, from artificial intelligence to automation and analytics.
Increasingly, grape growers are making use of a range of smart agri-tools, through opensource online facilities such as Fruitlook, initiated by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, and also by working with private suppliers. With the integrated database and tools at their disposal, especially satellite data analysis that links aerial imagery of vineyard, grapes and soils, with artificial intelligence and machine learning, growers can practise precision winegrowing at scale.
Niël Groenewald, who leads Distell’s recently expanded viticultural and winemaking teams, says it is invigorating rather than intimidating.
‘For technology to optimally realise its potential in our environment,’ he explains, ‘you need the right infrastructure, the right skills and the right focus.’
And the right attitude. ‘When technology shows us the extent to which we don’t know what we don’t know, it can be liberating. It can galvanise us to learn and discover and understand more. It can open our minds to approach problem-solving differently. ‘Yet it would be wrong to find ourselves worshipping at the altar of technology,’ he warns.
‘What’s important is how we apply it. Data for its own sake is just data. What do we want to know and what do we plan to do with the information? That’s where we need to focus. That’s how we glean critical insights. Some of what we are learning, thanks to our increasing access to technology, reaffirms that we have been following the right path. Other insights tell us that we are only partially right, or that we’re right but for the wrong reasons, or that we’ve been altogether wrong!
‘The point is to interrogate and constantly evaluate what we are doing so we can do it better and smarter. Often it’s a case of blending the new information or perspective with the practical experience and learnings built up over the years in the course of our work.
‘We are now farming in a way that not only enhances the intrinsic quality of the fruit but that also improves yields,’ says Groenewald.
Improving yields without sacrificing quality has become ever-more critical as South Africa’s national vineyard continues to diminish, having shrunk from around 105 000 hectares a decade ago to just below 96 000 hectares today.
‘New-generation farming also allows us to further refine harvesting times in relation to desired wine styles.
‘Other advantages include a reduction in the use of water, energy, herbicides and insecticides, making us altogether more eco-conscious and cost-efficient. ‘The upshot is better raw materials, lower-impact farming and smarter use of scarce resources. That’s very exciting. It’s also very much in line with the goals of the Porto Protocol summit held this past July.
A global initiative endorsed by former US president Barack Obama, the Porto Protocol aims to engage the entire wine industry worldwide, encouraging everyone to work together in reducing the impact of climate change.
Groenewald highlights the Gen-Z Vineyard Project, a wine tech-transfer initiative undertaken by local industry producer organisation VinPro. The intention is to give growers access to the latest research findings and technology, to help them make appropriate planting choices and soil and vineyard management decisions in the wake of climate change and the continued scarcity of water. ‘This is an important development that has the potential to benefit our industry in a way that promotes sustainability and South Africa’s competitiveness on world markets, both in terms of our repertoire and the price points of our offerings.’
He explains that Distell has for many years planned its globally traded wines in the vineyard, matching site, grape variety and quality with the intended wines and their price points. ‘This is, in effect, a form of precision farming. In recent years, the company has been able to harness classes of multispectral sensors to refine what we are doing, giving us greater control and therefore, nuance. Reflectance spectroscopy (an optical technique that measures electromagnetic radiation at different wavelengths) and other sensor technology pick up changes in transpiration or photosynthesis of vine leaves, leaf temperature and the nutritional status of the vines. Together they provide a detailed, in-time and accurate account of vine shape, vigour, berry size, health and variability within each vineyard.
‘When we are able to monitor vine responses so closely, we can make better-informed decisions and improve our response to vintage variations as a result of weather conditions. With more detailed findings, we can also modify soil and water stress management, irrigation protocols, trellising and canopy architecture to match intra-vineyard variations. Plus, we can be far more targeted in addressing issues such as pest management and even fertilisation for specific vines.’
Improved data also enhance already robust traceability measures that track production from soil to pack. ‘The ability to identify in more detail the processes at every point in the production chain of wine in South Africa is a mark of this country’s production integrity. For the past 20 years, our industry has been operating a carefully monitored and fully traceable set of eco-friendly Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) principles. This system has provided a critical point of difference for the South African wine category in international markets, and distinguishes our country for its highly progressive approach to sustainable winegrowing and winemaking.’
At the same time, new research encourages producers to revert to traditional strategies in some areas, he says.
Farmers are restoring soils by improving the structure with organic matter, promoting microbial life and facilitating nutrient availability, mulching, planting cover crops to increase carbon in the soil and to feed microbes, while cutting back on chemical interventions.
‘I read just recently how Marco Simonit, an Italian pruning specialist who consults globally, was urging growers to give more consideration to avoiding cutting into old wood, or making large pruning wounds, as this obstructs the flow of the vine sap and also makes the plants much more susceptible to disease.
‘These reminders can be encouraged in worker training to promote vine longevity and increase disease-resistance.
Article republished with the kind permission of Afgriland
Afgriland Sept/Oct 2018