The digital grape: Precision Viticulture as a modern tool in vineyard management by David R Green

In many smaller vineyards around the world most of the management practices such as planting, weeding, spraying, and picking are all very traditional, and carried out by hand with the help of some small mechanical equipment such as rotavators and small-scale tractors. However, in some of the larger vineyards these practices may be far more reliant on large tractors and mechanised equipment such as ploughs and sprayers. Even in the more extensive commercial vineyards – a good example often cited are those of Robert Mondavi in California – many of the day to day tasks will be carried out with the aid of mechanical equipment that not only prunes and sprays the vines but also picks the grapes, often guided by location-based technology e.g. Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Some vineyards even use aerial photographs taken at regular intervals to regularly assess the status of the vines in the vineyard. The value of using this, often very costly practise, is the economic benefit it brings to a commercial enterprise worth many millions of dollars each year. This is where modern technology can help in growing the best grapes and why 'precision viticulture' (PV) has been developed.

Whilst such sophisticated mechanisation is still largely the province of the really big commercial vineyards, some of this equipment and technology is now gradually becoming more commonplace in smaller vineyards around the world thanks to cheaper micro-processor technology. PV is the use of spatial (geography and location) and related technologies for the study of geographical variability in the vineyard as the means to provide a more objective basis for management practices. Whilst PV is most often associated with the vineyards in the USA, Australia, and Canada, in recent years precision viticulture has begun to find its way into most wine growing countries including Spain, Slovenia and New Zealand, and even the UK.

What is Precision Viticulture?

There are a number of different technologies and applications that come under the heading of PV. Today, most people are quite familiar with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) - whether as a navigational and locational aid when hill walking, in the car, or on a boat. But GPS can, for example, be used to help navigate tractors around a vineyard guided by a GPS unit located in the driver’s cab. GPS controlled equipment is also used to position the posts supporting the vine trellis, as well as vine plants during the planting of a vineyard, providing centimetre accuracy in the positioning and spacing of the plants and rows. In addition, GPS-guided equipment is used to help deliver doses of fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides exactly where they are needed in the vineyard as well as to prune vines and pick grapes. Though still not cheap yet this technology is now sufficiently well developed to carry out many of the more traditional time consuming and backbreaking tasks in planting and managing a vineyard.

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