The Wine Industry Is Getting a Tech Boost

There is a romanticism about the handcrafted nature of wine; drinkers love to learn how grapes are carefully tended to by the winemaker and hear how traditional methods of winemaking still thrive. However, winemakers of all levels, from boutique to large scale production, are starting to integrate new technological advances into all stages of the winemaking process in order to achieve a premium product.

In Chianti Classico in Tuscany, it’s not unusual to spot a drone flying above the sloping, picturesque vineyards of the Ruffino estate. The machine maps the vigor of the vines and shows the development of the ripening grapes across Ruffino’s 445 acres. Head agronomist Maurizio Bogoni, estate manager Luca Cavallaro, and chief winemaker Gabriele Tacconi carefully track the progress on images sent to their iPads or phones. Come harvest, the map is loaded onto a USB drive and input into their harvesting machine, which is specially equipped with GPS technology that allows it to “read” the map. As the harvester works its way through the vineyards, it picks and sorts grapes into two quality classifications. Known as “precision harvest,” Bogoni explains that the technology allows them to work better with vintage variations due to weather, as well as precisely farm portions of the vineyards that are more troublesome due to exposure, soils, or vine quality.

Ruffino is now using this “precision” technology in other areas of vineyard management with the goal of being more environmentally responsible. “We use a similar technique for fertilization of vineyards,” wrote Bogoni in an email. A vigor map of the vineyard is loaded onto a GPS-enabled based on tractor “that will distribute organic fertilizers according to what each vine really needs,” allowing the team to practice what they call “site-specific viticulture.” The winery is also considering precision farming for irrigation in order to use the optimal quantity of water for parcels and ultimately conserve water, a practice they hope to roll out in the next couple of years.

Grapes go through another vetting process once they reach the winery, and some estates, such as Château Ormes de Pez in St Estèphe, Bordeaux are experimenting with a micro-optic sorter to assess grape quality and select the best ones for their high-end cuvées. To truly understand the benefits of micro-optic sorting, though, one needs to go to the Kikusui sake brewery in the Niigata prefecture of Japan. Now run by the 5th generation, it’s easy to see the juxtaposition of tradition and innovation side by side. In one part of the facility, gleaming modern machines polish, bathe, and steam grains, but move to another part of the brewery and you’ll see workers in 95 degree rooms massaging tables full of rice by hand to encourage koji rice production (a fermented rice used for sake). 

The brewery began using optical technology in 2001. One a daily basis, almost 19,500 pounds of rice, (26,460 during the busy season) go though a sorter, which assesses and rejects defects not even visible to the human eye. “Cameras look for grains with flaws using ultraviolet light, and air pressure sorts grains with flaws when the camera catches them,” explains Tomo Mizumura from the brewery’s overseas sales division. While rice for all their premium sakes go through the machine, “it significantly improved the quality of Nigori sake (unfiltered sake),” says Mizumura. “Nigori sake contains ‘Morimi,’ or fermented mash, which includes undissolved grains of rice.”

Advancements are not all about what goes into the bottle; cork makers are rapidly creating proprietary technology to meet the demands of the industry and eradicate a blemished history. Back in the 1970s and 80s, countries such as South Africa, New Zealand and Australia began producing and exporting wine on a large scale. The cork industry scrambled to meet demand but quality fell in the rush to fill orders, and the influx of TCA-infected (trichloroanisole) closures gave rise to the infamous (and erroneous) term “corked.” Many of these countries turned to screwcaps instead and cork lost market share. Today, the cork industry, spearheaded by APCOR, a Portugal-based trade association, is fighting back and companies such as Amorim and MA Silva pledge to be “100% TCA free” in the next two years. APCOR reports there are now 115 patents for stoppers and 99 patents for processes, technology, and equipment.

Both MA Silva and Amorim are using gas chromatography in processes called One-by-One and NDTech, respectively, to check corks for traces of TCA in seconds. Back in January of 2018, cork analysis using Amorim’s NDTech process took 16 seconds, which they plan to drop to 10 seconds by the end of the year. They project by the end of 2018 they’ll have sold 70 million NDTech corks, up from 41 million in 2017. Champagne stopper specialist Relvas II uses optical cameras to assess and sort the disks used on their stoppers, both to ensure the quality but also to determine which side is aesthetically better and should receive a Champagne house’s logo. Other advancements in the industry, such as cork board imaging that stamps out the best portion of the stave for natural corks, are coming fast and furious.

There is a tendency to put wine into two category: small and artisanal and big and industrial. But there’s no clear delineation anymore. Winemakers are learning how to integrate technology into their processes to craft a high-end wine.

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