NASA researchers are helping growers improve wine quality by using remote-sensing technology to scan vineyards from high above California.
Scientists are using images taken from airplanes and satellites to map vineyard leaf area to help vintners measure ripening rate, disease incidence, soil drainage and fruit quality.
"For hundreds of years, winegrowers have known that grapes harvested from different areas in their vineyards can produce wines with unique flavors and tastes," said Tim Mondavi, winegrower and vice-chairman of Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville, Calif. "We are now using NASA’s advanced remote-sensing technologies to understand the subtle nuances of our vineyards, and with astounding results."
Researchers divided groups of vines in the study area into high-, moderate- and low-vigor areas, which have unique flavors and levels of grape maturity, allowing for different styles of wine. Results of the study confirm that the low- and moderate-vigor areas produced higher quality wines, while the high-vigor area produced medium quality wine. The winery has engaged a commercial remote-sensing vendor for 'decision support' across its Napa properties, the researchers said. Scientists also measured light levels, water status, chlorophyll and other factors on the ground.
"In certain regions of France, grapes have been grown for more than 1,700 years. Vintners in these regions have had abundant time to understand how vintage varies throughout the vineyard," explained principal investigator Lee Johnson, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. "By contrast, the majority of vineyard development in California's Napa Valley has occurred since the mid-1960s." Until now, Napa vintners generally have treated large 'blocks' of vines as single units for cultivation and harvest.
Remote-sensing imagery allows Robert Mondavi winegrowers to better understand micro-regions within their vineyards. "We now identify vine vigor to see weak and strong areas of growth in the vineyard, then we break up how we harvest," said Daniel Bosch, vineyard technical manager at Robert Mondavi Winery. "We can taste those differences in the grapes at harvest."
"Winemakers blend wines from different lots to create a desired flavor profile in the final wine," Johnson said. "A greater number of distinct wine lots will provide the winemaker with increased latitude in blending and serve to increase quality."
Scientists on the ground measured leaf area in selected sample sites at the Robert Mondavi Winery. The researchers then combined the ground-gathered leaf area data with aerial and satellite information to make an accurate map of the vineyard under study. Researchers used red and 'near' infrared images to monitor plant density, comparing various vine areas. Study results are scheduled for publication in the journal Applied Engineering in Agriculture, and for presentation at the Third International Conference on Geospatial Technologies in Agriculture and Forestry.
NASA 'remote sensing' of vineyards by airplane and satellite first began at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1993 to track the phylloxera infestation that was affecting northern California. From the late 1980s, California winegrowers faced destruction of their vines by infestation of the pest that kills vines by feeding on their roots. Infested areas must eventually be replanted on a phylloxera-resistant or tolerant rootstock. Additional information about NASA Ames' grapevine studies is on the Internet at:
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