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Lasers Could Help Britain Make Better Wine

The UK Department for Food and Rural Affairs has released new 3D laser mapping data designed to “revolutionise the English wine industry by helping growers identify new land.” But are the winemakers convinced?

by Josh Barrie
Nov 19 2015, 11:00am

Think about winemaking and your mind probably turns to centuries-old vineyards, years of refining tastes, and tradition.

"Data" isn't a word you'd likely associate with a particularly good vintage. Imagine Honoré de Balzac talking statistics while pondering fine wines in Eugénie Grandet—it's just not right.

But the year is 2015 and technological advances abound, even in the food and drink world's most cultured quarters.

READ MORE: English Sparkling Wine Is the New Champagne

Last month, the British government's Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Environment Agency (EA) partnered to release new 3D laser mapping data designed to "revolutionise the already booming English wine industry by helping growers identify new land to grow more and better quality grapes."

The maps use "LIDAR," a technology combining "light" and "radars" (hence the "LIDAR" portmanteau) that measures distance by illuminating targets with lasers and analysing the reflected light. Originally designed for flood defence planning, DEFRA's maps contain 11 terabytes of information and cover most of the UK. The data has now been rehashed and pointed in the direction of alcohol—a very English move.

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3D laser mapping data released by the UK Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Environment Agency. Image courtesy DEFRA.

"The EA has been using LIDAR data for the development of accurate terrain models since the spring of 1998," a DEFRA spokesperson tells me. "LIDAR uses a laser to scan and map the landscape from above. The data can be used to map height, slopes, and reveal features that would otherwise not be seen."

The EA also states that the LIDAR lasers can record coordinates at lightning speed, allowing winemakers to tell exactly what they're walking on, ergo where to plant their vines.

But will such high tech methods be welcomed by the winemakers themselves?

West Sussex winemaker Brad Greatrix can see the benefits of the new LIDAR maps.

"We don't use LIDAR and we don't have immediate plans for further planting, but I can see its potential merits," he says. "Being able to survey areas of land for plots with a precise aspect, elevation, and slope could be of great benefit in a viticulture climate like England. We know how important it is to get these elements right."

But Greatix adds that incorporating such new technology into his vineyard would be time consuming. And time isn't really something winemakers have to play with.

"Topography only tells part of the story," he says. "We also overlay geological maps to get soil profiles and information from local weather stations when evaluating possible sites. Only then can you understand the real potential of a plot of land for growing top quality wine grapes."

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Camel Valley vineyard, Cornwall. Photo courtesy Camel Valley.

Nearby at Sussex's Nutbourne Vineyard, the Gladwin family has been producing wine for years. They also think LIDAR data may prove useful.

"Terroir is certainly important in planting a vineyard and we already do look at this," says Richard Gladwin. "A south-facing slope and the correct soil types are key to this and can already be done by using an Agronomist to test the soil. The new technology will of course add to the security of knowing the land is right for a vineyard, but it's also about the year's weather and how the growers treat their vineyards over the growing season."

LIDAR also has the potential to equip new, perhaps inexperienced winemakers with little knowledge of where to begin. Setting up a vineyard is a daunting prospect but with the rising popularity of English wine, it looks to be something more people embark on.

"We see this as a great springboard for the industry, and with the right people getting into new vineyards it can only help," adds Gladwin. "This would likely be great for new growers."

READ MORE: Scotland's First Attempt at Wine Is 'Bizarre' and 'Undrinkable'

Unsurprisingly, DEFRA and the EA are enthusiastic about LIDAR's potential in the industry. (Lasers to aid wine? What a splendid prospect.) Environment Secretary Liz Truss even visited the Bolney Wine Estate in Sussex to see how LIDAR might equip winemakers.

In a statement, she said: "Production has doubled in the last five years, chalking up an estimated retail value of £82 million and by using cutting edge technology such as precision viticulture, our hard-working grape growers are now producing some of the best wine in the world. By opening up our extensive data vaults we will further grow this important industry. LIDAR is just the beginning of the biggest government data giveaway the country has ever seen."

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Photo courtesy Camel Valley.

Much like a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, it's important to see clearly here. DEFRA's data is promising—a useful tool for newcomers to harness—but it's yet to help a vineyard blossom. For that reason, longtime producers like Sam Lindo, at Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall are cautious. He tells me that computers have modernised his operations enough and he won't be tapping into LIDAR.

However, Lindo does add: "It (LIDAR) means it would be easier to apply some sort of slide rule to find the optimum sites for height, aspect, frost risk, and summer weather. It would show up the sites in the UK with the most potential."

As with many technological advances, it seems like it will be the next generation who track their terrain using LIDAR technology. It may be a few more years yet before we can raise a glass of laser wine.