How do they do IT? Vintage IT

The art of winemaking has been cherished and revered for thousands of years. Darren Pauli discovers how technology marries with tradition to produce Australia’s best drops.
How do they do IT? Vintage IT

Present at our most catalytic events, revered by many of the world’s religious orders, wine has buttered the tongues of warlords and dictators. Roman Caesars have gorged on it, medieval poets have sung about it and chemists have cured ailments with what was once an elixir, now a treasured beverage. And IT is changing the future flavour.

Australia’s place in the history of winemaking — or vinification — is an epilogue to an 8000-year chronology which began in ancient Iran, was transformed at the hands of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and spread through trade and the spoils of war. Australia is considered ‘new world’ in terms of wine manufacture, and our vinification techniques are on the bleeding-edge of technological advancement. The veins of many of our master wine makers run with the blood of experienced European vintners, but their techniques are worlds apart.

Since the first local wines were produced in 1820 after 40 years of failed imported South African crops, Australia has risen to become the world’s fourth-largest exporter, worth $2.3 billion last year. We ship Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling to name a few — some 764 million litres in 2009. Our sacred drop recently bumped ‘old world’-producing nations from the top of wine lists in the UK and across Europe. And, like ice to Inuits, we even sell our wine to France, Italy and Spain. It’s that good, so says our humble industry.

Wine exports tipped $2.3 billion last year, a rise of 9 per cent, following another wine glut in 2005 triggered calls for growers to pull out their vines. Bulk wines are on the up to the tune of an extra 119 million litres, but they are far from overtaking bottled wine exports, and still less than the 40 per cent market share of bottled reds. Our Shiraz is in highest demand by international palettes, followed by Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

From the vine

It’s the harvest season for winemakers in the Southern Hemisphere. Some smaller Australian vineyards will pick the grapes by hand, which has more to do with particular vintage requirements than in homage to old world techniques. The larger winemakers will employ software and machine technology to identify the best and ripest rachis (the stem which contains the grapes), and will use integrated mapping to locate the patchwork of varietals hidden across the vineyards. Technology is now so integral to wine production that without it, many of our favourite drops from remote regions would disappear.

Take the Wynns vineyard, nestled in the cool clime of Coonawarra, on South Australia’s Limestone Coast. The landscape looks deceptively flat to the eye, and until about 10 years ago it was assumed to be as such. Enter precision viticulture: Parent company Foster's can now identify subtleties in environmental conditions across all its vineyards that can make the difference between a $100 bottle of red, and a $20 offering.

An $80 drop won’t come from mixing them, however, so Foster's teamed-up with the CSIRO to develop a military-grade system for each of its vineyards covering a total of 9000 hectares, to identify variances in light, moisture and soil type to determine the best location for a given varietal. An aerial monitoring system records the slightest variances in the light spectrum over the vineyard area, which together with advanced automated telemetric watering systems, can produce the optimal growth for a given wine variety.

“Technology has a huge role to play,” says Foster's Australia and New Zealand director of wine production, Dr Stuart McNab. “We align spectrum which just cannot be detected by eye, and soil conditions to yield… it means that, through technology, we can manage and enhance our vine growth.”

The supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) probes, also known as programmable logic controllers, detect variances in moisture and soil chemistry, which in turn triggers watering drip systems and tells viticulturalists which specific mulches and fertilisers to apply to targeted vines. “It means we get that $100 bottle, and that $50 bottle — smart use of technology means better wines, and uniformed flavour, which means more money,” says McNab.

Similar technology is at play over at De Bortoli. It has extensive SCADA networks throughout its three vineyards in the NSW Riverina and Hunter Valley, and in the Victorian Yarra Glen region. The system monitors soil conditions for moisture and chemical composition. The information is passed onto its chief viticulturalists and winemakers who then make knowledge-based decisions on whether, for example, watering systems should be switched on in accordance with weather patterns and disease control.

“The winemakers have the experience which is difficult to automate: That is, they make informed decisions, based on the data feeds that the technology supplies them with,” says De Bortoli IT manager, Bill Robertson. “Simple cause-and-effect systems, like those for temperature control, can be automated, but in other circumstances you want the winemakers and viticulturalists to make the final call.”

De Bortoli also uses a robotic sampler which trundles through vineyard and measures the grape acidity and baume — or sugar — levels. The information is fed via a new module into an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system where it is used to plan vintages the laboratory.

The online, hosted VineAccess database feeds information from 300 growers into De Bortoli’s custom ERP system, including information on grape colour, maturity and the use of sprays. The data is matched against the winery’s own viticulture data to determine a precise picking date, which is entered into a scheduling system.

You’ll find a Geographic Information System (GIS) in almost every large vineyard. De Bortoli uses integrated mapping systems and GPS coordinates to establish vineyard boundaries, the location of specific varietals and their specific environmental conditions. The winery has saved thousands on GIS licensing and terabytes of storage by shunning commercial mapping tools for free and open-source alternatives such as Google Maps. Even its module, which integrates the size, yield, water usage and maturity of surrounding vineyards into the GIS, was developed free of charge by a local university intern. It’s a case-in-point for the benefits of open source and internship that Robertson says IT managers across all industries should consider.

“It seems that many industries are surprisingly conservative adopters of technology while the new world wineries have historically been quite open...having an open IT architecture helps.”

Mapping technology helps guide Foster's’ grape harvesters, and tell drivers what varietal sector they are in.

“We draw up a game plan, with each sector divided into… batches of grapes aligned to quality, and the harvester can pin-point the location pf the quality variations as it drives along,” says McNab. The harvester also has a radio link with the collection bins that ensures the grapes destined for the $100 wine are not mixed with anything else. And the mapping system can be streamed to Foster's’ fleet of BlackBerry smartphones to ensure viticulturalists and winemakers are up to date.

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