The internet of… wine?

Can the internet help European vineyards prevent another disease like Phylloxera?

Wine growers in Europe have long memories. Only 150 years ago the aphid-like Phylloxera bug, imported from America in plant specimens, was to devastate vineyards across France and elsewhere in Europe, leaving centuries-old practices in tatters. Growers had no choice but to look to pest-resistant American vines, first trying hybrid breeds before settling on grafting European vines onto American rootstocks.

Today, the European Union produces some 175 million hectolitres per year, equating to 65% of global production. Another disease like Phylloxera would wipe over €30 billion from Europe’s revenues, according to 2010 figures. While general fears of a similarly cataclysmic event may have subsided, coping with disease is a major part of the modern wine maker’s job. 

As attention has turned to maximising yields over recent decades, a lack of data on the ground (quite literally) has led to a spray-it-all approach. According to the 2010 report, viticulture uses double the fungicides of other types of crop, and about the same amount of pesticides. "The higher consumption of fungicides in viticulture is due to the fact, that Vitis vinifera has no resistance to introduced fungus diseases and requires chemical protection," it states.

At least part of the answer, it appears, can come from sensors that can ‘read’ the qualities of the soil. Not only can resulting analysis determine where and when to apply nutrients (thus saving money and avoiding over-fertilising), they can identify the onset of disease by watching for symptomatic changes to the environment. If vines are being infected, they can be sprayed, isolated or even ripped out before the damage spreads. 

A pioneer in this space is Slovenian technologist Matic


erc, whose company Elmitel is looking at the role of sensors in wine growing and who is currently engaged in an accelerator programme in Bordeaux to develop the eVineyard app and service. Part of the challenge is working with such a traditional industry, he says. "In certain areas, 30% of growers don’t have mobile phones, never mind smartphones,” he says. “It’s not realistic to expect this to skyrocket!"

Having said this, reactions suggest wine growers are not closed to new ideas. Drones are already starting to appear in Bordeaux as a way of checking ripeness, vine damage and indeed, disease, and growers are watching each other to see where technology can make a difference. "Compared to Slovenia, they are more open,” says Matic, who grew up in an environment where the general populace is roped in to help with the grape harvest in the fields once a year (“There’s usually some kind of a ‘party',”, he says).

One stimulus to the adoption of technology in viticulture is that wine processes themselves are evolving, through the changing climate as well as economic factors. “Seasons are changing, weather patterns are different, so working practices are also changing. In addition, organic growing is rising as a trend, which goes back towards reaching the natural balance.” Indeed, pesticides are themselves a relatively modern invention — if sensors can help bring back more traditional management practices, what’s not to like?

Matic and his team are quickly learning that more goes on in wine growing than engineering can solve, however. "It’s a triangle of the soil, the weather and the vine. When you manage vineyards you can manage the soil and you can manage the canopy, to an extent. But you cannot completely switch the soil, or change weather conditions, with technology." 

So, where and how can tech be of benefit? The key lies in how it can help growers make better informed decisions, helping reduce both costs and risks. "Wine growing has practices that are very old, but the data helps you manage more efficiently, more precisely,” says Matic. “You have to keep in mind what you want from the grapes — the grapes then go through the process of wine making but there are factors that you cannot influence."

Ultimately wine is more than a product, it is a consequence of everything that takes place to turn the first opening leaves of Spring into the dark reds and crisp whites, the infusion of flavours and textures that bring so much pleasure to so many. “Wine has a story, a personality,” says Matic. “Many things can be monitored, it helps you get where you want to be but you need more than technology.” 

Better data may bring precision and more informed decisions, but it is in wine that we find truth.