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Optimising wine-growing operations improves world competitiveness

The EUREKA E! 2587 VI-TIS project has developed new instrumentation and devised modelling software to boost the quality of European wine while reducing overall production costs.

Close co-operation between French and Spanish equipment, wine-making and agricultural research partners has resulted in the development of highly automated precision farming technology aimed at helping wine growers around the world to improve the quality of their output and better control their productivity.

In 2004, some 290 million hl of wine was produced globally, with approximately two thirds being produced mainly in France, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

France is a leading wine exporter but European wine producers on the whole are facing increasingly fierce competition from overseas, especially as domestic consumption continues to drop. All players in the sector are responding to economic pressures by stepping up marketing efforts and increasing their understanding of international markets, at the same time as ensuring stringent production control. Wine growers need to invest in new equipment and novel technology to improve farming efficiency and cost-control, while ensuring the sustainable production of higher quality wines that appeal to a wider range of customers.

Increasing quality is essential

“Increased quality is the key to meeting the crisis in the wine industry and to ensure sustainable production,” explains project leader Gaetan Archambault of agricultural equipment manufacturer Pellenc, a French company specialising in the worldwide sales of equipment for wine and olive growing. The specifications for VI-TIS were continually adapted as the project advanced from basic research through application research, to discussions on use with the wine growers themselves, to determine their real needs.

For example, new sensors were developed to measure sugar levels in the grapes and their level of acidity, as well as analysing soil hygrometry and condition. Hand-held computer systems were adapted to record the data in the field. And relevant information was identified to be fed back from the field to the control centre to allow calculations of fertiliser needs and enable yield analysis.

Wider market understanding

“Co-operation in EUREKA enabled us to work easily across borders and to involve universities and research centres,” Archambault adds. “Having both French and Spanish partners provided additional windows into wine-growing operations.” Project participants included the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Agronomie de Montpellier (ENSAM) in France, the Navarra Viticulture and Oenology Centre (EVENA) and Bodegas Chivite, a major wine producer from the heart of the reputed Spanish wine-making area of Navarre.

EUREKA opened access to funding and – more importantly – to a much wider market understanding. Pellenc already had experience of EUREKA as this was its third such international project. “I am certain that the work we have undertaken in this EUREKA project is far ahead of its time,” he adds. “The advances we have made are already encouraging other groups to start similar developments. However, we are only at the beginning of facing up to the crisis in the wine industry. The result of our work will be an increase in sustainable wine production and in wine quality.”

By the end of the VI-TIS project, a viable prototype system had been created but the final commercial specifications are still being drawn up. This is taking longer than originally forecast to take into account all the feedback from potential users. Pellenc estimates that 30 to 40% of its wine industry clients will be using the resulting technology by 2010.

Catherine Shiels | alfa
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