Precision viticulture brings its rewards

Colin Hinze says he was ‘in the right place at the right time’ as the concept of precision viticulture began to emerge in Australia – and he hasn’t wasted the opportunity or the lessons learned. His decade of achievements with Taylors Wines was recognised in November with the ASVO’s award for Viticulturist of the Year.

It’s an award of which he’s particularly proud, from an organisation that he has been supporting since his days as a student at the University of Adelaide – one of the first accepted into the viticulture course after it moved from Roseworthy to the Waite Campus.

Colin graduated in 1995 and scored his first job with Southcorp Limited (now known as Treasury Wine Estates), which was just starting to explore precision viticulture techniques in partnership with the CSIRO supported by Wine Australia funding.

‘In my way of thinking, precision viticulture is about bringing in a geographical dimension; it adds a location to the other information that you are collecting at the same time’, he said.

‘Traditionally, we look at a block and its boundaries; assuming it’s a square it’s got four sides and we judge that block on its average yield, average quality, average fertility and average vigour. Precision farming lets you drill down within a block, or a paddock, to really understand the variability there.’

Colin’s timing was also ideal when he arrived at Taylors in 2005. Management was ready to embrace change and gave him licence to roll out new things, even when there wasn’t a clear idea of the specific returns.

‘We didn’t change a lot of our practices; what we tended to change was the timing of when you did something or how you did something’, he said. ‘And we gained an awful lot of knowledge very quickly.’

Over the following years, Colin implemented a range of techniques, including vigour mapping through digital multi-spectral imagery, yield mapping with machine harvesters, soil change mapping by electromagnetic conductance measurement, and a detailed digital elevation model of the 700 hectare property.

‘The quick win, if you like, comes from a vigour map because assuming the plant’s healthy – you don’t have an underlying disease or virus influencing things – it’s representing the variability of the land,’ he said. ‘A vigour map is a great introduction to understanding variability. It doesn’t give you any answers; it just gives you an idea of where to start looking.

‘When you’re trying to drill down further, soil variability mapping is a great next step because it starts to help explain the variability. But again, you don’t really know why until you do your traditional soil analysis, testing and observations.’

Colin says precision viticulture applications typically cost 0.5–1 per cent of total expenditure, so ‘the return on investment is readily accepted’. The concepts and knowledge are transferable, but you still need good baseline data.

‘The fundamentals of viticulture and agronomy don’t change – you still need to look at plant health, soil moisture, nutrition and canopies. What it changes is the boundaries. It’s not just the strainer posts – you’ve got complexity within the block.’

The biggest impact at Taylors has been in supporting vineyard redevelopment. ‘Where we’ve been removing old, unproductive vineyards and replanting them, it’s given us the best chance to redesign those vineyards to be compatible with the variability that we have’, he said.

‘It’s yet to be proven because of the time it takes for those vineyards to reach maturity, but we are confident that by taking a slightly different approach to vineyard design we are minimising the variability within a block and maximising the difference between blocks with these new designs.’

Colin has also been heavily involved with education and research. Taylors is currently hosting its third Wine Australia-funded project using precision viticulture techniques for measurement and evaluation, and is working with the CSIRO on the development of sensors that could give feedback about quality parameters.

‘That’s probably the holy grail, where your sensors in real time might be able to say “OK you’re currently harvesting A grade fruit, now you’re moving into B grade, change what you’re doing or leave it until later”’, he said.

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