Going Digital Is Crucial, but First You Must Analyze the Vineyard in Depth.

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Team Terraview

An interview with Elena Rivilla, head of viticulture at Pago de Carraovejas.

When she arrived at Pago de Carraovejas in 2008, Elena Rivilla had just completed an internship at a winery in the Toro appellation of origin in Spain. Shortly before, she had finished her degree in agricultural engineering, specializing in viticulture and then studying enology.  She was the only girl in a team of eighteen people and probably did not imagine that she would end up managing it and that this winery in the Valladolid town of Peñafiel would be her home for the next thirteen years. As head of viticulture, she has witnessed and led the evolution of a family business that has become one of the benchmarks of innovation and sustainability in Spain.

In her conversation with Terraview, she talked about the importance of innovation, teamwork, and respect for nature. After all, the group answers to the name of Alma Carraovejas (Carraovejas Soul). Today, under its umbrella, there are reference wineries such as Ossian, Milsetentayseis, or Viña Meín-Emilio Rojo.

Respectful pruning, a critical element in vineyard care

One of the recurring themes in the interview is pruning. As has happened with numerous wineries, the systems traditionally used reduced the vine’s longevity and exposed it to diseases. “When you see vineyards using traditional pruning, you wonder how we were able to treat them like that in the past…,” she says with a sigh. “But of course, that was thought to be the best thing for the plant.” In recent years, they have opted for less aggressive pruning, training staff in a pruning campus with a leading company, specialized in plant physiology and respect for the vine. Thus, they now have an experimental plot where they test techniques such as “candelabra” pruning, raising the thumbs circularly.

“Before, in an attempt to regenerate the plant, very thick cuts were made, forming desiccation cones, dead wood, which prevent the proper flow of sap. This is also associated with wood diseases and the longevity of the plant itself.” In this regard, as in other technological issues, they have had to undergo a transition with their staff. “These are people who have been pruning in one way all their lives, and we had to change the model. There, accompanying each team member daily helps a lot. In the end, the team has adapted very well.”

Finally, they are researching a living organism with healing potential, known as Trichoderma, from the soil of their own vineyard – soil and vines – to treat pruning cuts and prevent wood diseases. As with their native yeasts, Rivilla believes that this Trichoderma will be more efficient and beneficial.

Sustainability, one of the winery's pillars

Although we will talk about the technological component of Pago de Carraovejas further on, the environmental and sustainable approach cannot be left out. ” While we have part of the vineyard certified as organic, that philosophy extends to all our production.” As an example, she mentions agroforestry practices, with the planting of oaks, almond trees, and wooded areas in the vineyards’ vicinity to create a rich ecosystem. “That’s important also to decrease the carbon footprint.”

Besides, in the vineyard itself, vegetation covers have proven to be very useful: “We have also been working for several years with vegetation covers, which vary annually depending on the annual climatology and soil and humidity analyses. For us, it is a natural tool. In the lower areas, the vegetation cover is used to reduce the plants’ vigor, while on the slopes it minimizes soil runoff”. At the same time, this practice promotes biodiversity in the plots. They have also conducted trials with mulching, i.e., covering the vineyard soil with straw or organic matter to maintain humidity and enhance microbiology. Finally, they work with organic fertilizers.

A constant digitalization process

Pago de Carraovejas has a robust R&D&I department that is behind the winery’s digitalization process. “We are a family business, very attached to tradition, but at the same time, we are very interested in technology. We took the first steps with the climatic stations, starting from an in-depth soil zoning study. We considered parameters such as location, grape varieties, soil type, altitude, slope, and other factors. To all of this, we have to add the experience of our staff. We call them detailed monitoring points. The stations, in addition to real-time data, provide weather forecasts.

Later, work with aerial imagery would follow. “We started working with drones to, based on NDVI and thermal images, create fertilization or irrigation models, or even see the areas affected by a frost. Lately, we have been focusing more and more on satellite technology. This allows us to compare historical vintages and dates”. Another line of work has been using a quad that measures the electrical conductivity of the soil and generates area maps of different elements. But always without losing sight of the human element. “In any case, field visits are a must. These tools help us, but knowing the terrain and working as a team, the connection with the staff, is vital.”

One of the challenges they faced with the growing wealth of data was the scattered nature of all that information. So centralizing all the data and visualizing images has been one of the priorities in recent times. “When you’re on the campaign trail, you have to make decisions almost on the spot, so having accessible data and analytics is vital.” Each of the team members is inputting data from each intervention, including pruning, fertilization, and thinning. “We’ve already managed to dump all the data, which has been a considerable amount of work.”

However, the technological tests have not always been satisfactory. She offers the example of the use of artificial vision for yield estimation. “The problem was that we hardly defoliate the plants and many bunches were hidden, so the machine did not register them, and the estimate was not accurate.” So, for now, they have gone back to the manual method.

Putting this process into perspective, she makes a recommendation: “To undertake a successful digitization, the vineyard must be analyzed very well, both the soil and climatic characteristics, carrying out zoning studies, and thus obtaining relevant data.”

Pampering each plot

The winery has 160 hectares of vineyards, distributed between the Carraovejas hillside, from which the imposing Peñafiel castle can be seen, and other plots with evocative names such as Espantalobos or Terrazas del Anejón. Also, they work with external suppliers with around fifty additional hectares. These diverse vineyards supply them mainly with Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, which they use in their coupages, with which they produce their renowned reds. “We work very closely with all the departments. In turn, within the production department, we participate in tastings and see what each plot can contribute, the type of wine we are looking for.”

Climate change led them to explore cooler areas such as Espantalobos in 2016. “If you had told us years ago that grapes could ripen there, it would have seemed almost unthinkable. Now we believe that those yields are going to bring good acidity to our wines.” This vineyard has also allowed them to apply new training systems such as the “échalas” vase, following the French Rhone style, where the inclement mistral blows. It consists of tying the vine shoots around an acacia stake to protect them. In this area, they are also recovering the traditional goblet instead of the double cordon royat trellis used in most of their vineyards.

Among viticulturalists, there are often predilect plots. In Rivilla’s case, it is the Anejón: “It is almost 900 meters above sea level and has the particularity of being partitioned into terraces, as it is a slope. That’s where wines with a lot of minerality come from.”

“Each plot offers us very different characteristics and a specific type of cluster,” she says. For this reason, a micro-plot approach and understanding what is happening in each of them is crucial. And this is achieved by working in close contact with the land and the help of new technologies.

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