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Satellites unravel the secrets of wine terroir

By Chris Mercer , 03-Feb-2006

Scientists from the European Space Agency are peering at satellite images of Italy's Frascati wine region as part of project to use space technology to improve wine industry management.

Satellite and airborne radar images of last autumn's grape harvest in Frascati, nestling in the hills above Rome, are at the centre of a new pilot scheme to better document and understand the many nuances of Europe's vast wine territories.

The Frascati images, taken between 5 and 25 October, are currently being examined by a team from the European Space Agency's (ESA) European Centre for Earth Observation and the University of Tor Vergata, near Rome.

Professor Domenico Solimini, of Tor Vergata, said the scientists were looking at a range of factors, including roughness and moisture of the terrain, grape density and weed height as well as leaf height and dimensions.

A survey of Frascati's terrain was also done on the ground to compliment the aerial images and data.

The results should help the researchers understand more about the factors affecting wine 'terroir'; a somewhat mystical term that loosely translates into the environmental conditions and mini eco-system in which vines are grown.

Vintners, however, point out that a wine is also shaped by the individual winemaker; something no satellite could appreciate. Thierry Hasard, a southern French vintner, said a wine's personality could reflect its maker: "It depends on the way you pick it, treat it and nurture it."

Even so, the ESA researchers said: "With global competition growing, the hope is to develop information tools that combine aerial and satellite imagery with GIS technology in support of vineyard management and improving wine quality."

Large vineyards replace an average three to five hectares of vines each year, with positioning of new fields essential to secure the best possible climatic conditions.

New imaging technology could even help governments looking to curb illegal planting; something the wine market can ill-afford amid a global supply glut.

The EU already uses aerial images to check up on whether Member States are spending Common Agricultural Policy funding properly. The European Commission last year ordered France to pay back €14.5m it received to restructure and modernise vineyards, after it found the money was mispent.

The technology and methods used to record the Frascati harvest were put in place by an EU-funded project called Bacchus.

The current spin-off research is being run by the DiVino consortium, also part-EU-funded and made up of both public and private bodies from different ends of the wine industry in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal.