It was in the Chateau Fortia estate, at the foot of Chateauneuf-du-pape in southern France, that the concept of “Registered Designation of Origin” first appeared.
It is a weighty legacy for the descendants of Baron Le Roy, who must now maintain a certain quality, year after year, whatever the weather.
With the harvest in mind, a close eye is kept on how ripe the grapes are. The analysis is carried out on the ground, but also… from the sky.
The estate has called in a company using satellite imagery. Once it is processed, the colour spectrum, from green to red, enables the different degrees of maturity in the vineyard to be viewed.
“Actually we measure infrared rays,” said wine expert Didier Robert. “And we know that infrared rays relate to photosynthesis activity in the vegetable kingdom. It is an indirect measurement of the strength of each plot of land.”
So, the wine-grower ends up with a precise map of his vineyard. He can see to its upkeep and decide to harvest, depending on which areas are ripe rather than
just moving from one plot of land to another.
“In a plot which is exactly the same, judging by the Land Registry, there are areas with extremely different quality levels,” said Chateau Fortia Manager Pierre Pastre. “At some point, part of a plot will have to be harvested before another part that we will agree to harvest a couple of weeks later.”
In use for three years, this technology is gradually turning the estate’s customs upside down. The owners have had to adapt the way they manage the vineyard and invest in new means of production.
“Nowadays, we have computerised tools, expertise developed through agricultural engineers in a host of countries, whether it is Switzerland, France, Italy etc…” said Pastre. “And we make use of it. We are not farmers anymore. We have become company managers.”
They are company managers who are using the latest, in-vogue tools like drones. Closer to earth than satellites, drones are making their appearance on the very large estates, meaning that the vines can be observed at a distance after heavy rain or hail.
But back down to earth, in the Agroscope de Changins Research Station near Nyon in Switzerland, a futuristic looking measuring device is being tested.
“You could say it is just like a gun or a camera because it gives off flashes of light,” said chemist Sandrine Belcher. “With this device, we measure the progress of the polyphenol pigmentation during the ripening process. So the grapes turn from green to red and it measures that very well indeed.”
This method provides results much more quickly than traditional analysis. Laboratory tests are carried out on grapes picked at random from a plot of land in small quantities. When the new device is fitted with a GPS system, it means that the wine-growing area can be charted with greater precision.
“As it records a huge number of points across the plots of land, you can look at the differing degrees of ripeness. And you can see areas that are a lot less ripe here, close to the forest or the road,” said Belcher, indicating different colours on a computer screen.
The information is verified on the ground.
Science and new technology are giving wine-growers an increasingly precise perspective on their work. But ultimately, decisions about what action to take in the vineyard and when to harvest the grapes depend on good old-fashioned human know-how.