Water has always been a core element in the aged-old craft and artistry of making wine. Whether it’s old world traditions that shun irrigated vines, or new world plantings in deserts that are in constant need of drink, one can’t separate water from wine.
But in the rank and file of concerns for winemakers and vineyard managers the world over, while precious, water has been just one of many factors that compete to be their top concern.
In old world vineyards, irrigation was largely limited to rainfall, putting irrigation in a viticulturalist’s bucket of things they can’t control.
While total vineyard surface has remain stable, around 7.5million hectares, there has been a marked shift in new world wine growth to offset old world growth, and an increase in previously unheard of regions like far northern Europe, Scandania and now England, where 3 million vines where planted only in 2019, which offsets the decrease recorded in Europe. With the expansion of vineyards into new areas previously not cultivated, and the advent of significant rises in temperatures due to climate change, the effective application of irrigation and the need to manage it’s ever rising costs has put water optimization top of mind for any vineyard operator. This trend is manifested in the exponential growth of investment in irrigation agtech the world over.
According to Grand View Research, between 2020 and 2027, it is expected to grow with a CAGR of 9.2%. Yet, if you asked any sampling of large or small vineyard operators, none would feel that their ability to manage irrigation effectively has grown at the same rate as investment enthusiasm. Some feel outright ripped off.
In addition to the day-to-day duties of managing a vineyard, viticulturalists regularly have to transform themselves into data analysts, and reporting secretaries. Often as much of the day is spent shifting through paper reports or disconnected sensor summaries, often at the expense of walking the vines.
Creating effective action from all these disjointed investments is in short supply and, as a result, we still largely irrigate similarly to what we did 25 years ago.
Increased water needs call for better management
Furthermore, in new world territories like Australia, the use of raw water for grapevine irrigation from origin sources like the Murray River is common, but the water quality is becoming less stable. The net impact for some may be that you finally can get water to your vineyard, but what water you actually get may create new problems.
Also, viticulturalists are facing increased regulatory pressure. They need to comply with water quotas and they even have set limits to the time of day when they can pump out water. In regions like Navarre, in Spain, there’s a certain amount of water farmers can use throughout the season, so they need to manage it wisely.
Lastly, as sustained ground temperatures increase and droughts become the new normal, the thirst for even legacy vines is growing, creating in incremental demand for not only more volume, but the need to throttle that volume based on the matured delicacies of that specific block. In hotter countries like Spain, now almost 40% of vineyards resort to irrigation and even Northern regions such as La Rioja are choosing irrigation to attain more control over their yields.
So if the relentless purchasing of newer gear and an ever wider array of sensors has not yet solved these problems, how is a vineyard operator to move forward?
The answer lies in data
It’s through being able apply the data a vineyard already has with emerging artificial intelligence, a vineyard operator can transition from a one-size-fits-all form of irrigation to that of dynamic – or smart(er) – irrigation where the amount or schedule of water delivery is adjustable based on spikes in temperature, the sudden onset of a storm, shallows in water quality, or the diverse needs of specific varietals down any mixed row.
By being also to easily detect and pinpoint leakage by running visual data through machine learning, and by throttling the water pressure based on data patterns above, consensus in the marketplace is that smart(er) irrigation can optimize water usage by as much as 50-60%, as proved by research carried out by CSIC, a Spanish scientific institute.
Moreover, data-driven insights can help to design and implement irrigation and zoning systems from scratch, both for existing dry land vineyards and altogether new plantations, to optimize investments in costly layouts. Thus, satellite imaging smart analyses can assess water pooling and hydric retention rates over time on any given plot.
The benefits are multifold, not the least of which is creating much better consistency and accuracy across the diverse microclimate that is any vineyard. To sum up, smart(er) irrigation will improve the management of hydric resources and reduce waste, thus achieving a more sustainable viticulture. Just as importantly, however, it will become an essential tool to improve yield quality by controlling hydric stress with greater accuracy.