August 26, 2008 / 11:16 AM / 11 years ago

French wine makers look to the skies for help

PARIS (Reuters Life!) - French vinters are turning to outer space to outwit foreign rivals, with new satellite technology giving an overview of vineyards’ physical characteristics and potential.

A grape picker cleans a bunch of grapes during a day of grape harvest at le Clos Saint Vincent vineyard in Bellet, on the outskirts of Nice, south-eastern France September 21, 2005. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The satellite images, produced by French wine consultancy body ICV and geo-information provider Infoterra, give growers information on water stress and grape composition amongst others, allowing better management of the vinification.

The technology, called Oenoview, is a combination of aerial photographs and satellite imagery in the near-infrared, which provides growers and buyers with a complete picture of the vines’ vigor and the plot’s ‘terroir’ before the harvest.

Oenoview is based on an existing service for agriculture, but because of the smaller size of the plots a higher resolution was needed, Infoterra’s Innovation Manager Herve Poilve said.

“It allows the growers to visualize the observed variability of the vine at the level of the vineyard said Bruno Tisseyre, a lecturer at the Institute for Agronomic Research.

Vines’ variability can be affected by a number of factors, including soil water levels and mineral deficiencies.

“For the co-operative caves who buy the grapes they can know the potential quality and quantity of wine very early — six weeks before the harvest,” Jacques Rousseau, head of ICV’s Vines and Wines Department told Reuters.

Oenoview not only allows growers to better estimate the potential value of their plot but also lets them sort the grapes by quality. By putting similar grapes together, producers can reduce the risk of making low quality of wine.

While Oenoview can provide wine producers with key information, both ICV and Infoterra stress the technology is not intended to replace the vineyard’s technicians and their knowledge of the terroir.

For Tisseyre, the satellite imagery is a supplementary source of information that allows him to optimize his observation and better orientate the management of the vines.

However, the service is not free which has put off some vineyards. Jean Hemmi, technician at the Caves de Fronton near Toulouse, told Reuters that Oenoview was “a little too expensive” and added they were looking for free aerial photos.

“As it is a new service, we prefer to progress slowly and satisfy our customers,” said Rousseau, adding that clients had mostly been delighted.

UNDER PRESSURE

Rousseau added that in order to remain competitive, French wine growers need to produce more wine and better wine.

New World wines are becoming increasingly popular with consumers, as are those of European rivals Spain and Italy.

Italian farmers’ group Coldiretti said last week that good weather should see Italy overtake arch-rival France to become Europe’s biggest wine producer in 2008.

In July a study by the Credoc French research centre showed Spain could permanently overtake France as the world’s biggest wine producer as soon as 2015 because Spanish wine growers are improving the yield of their vines while the French are cutting back.

According to Rousseau, it is the dynamic, resilient cooperatives which are interested by Oenoview, currently limited to Southern France.

“It has been recognized as innovative and is intended to be used in the rest of France and the world,” he said.

Editing by Matthew Jones

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