Some archaeologists date the first vineyards on the Iberian Peninsula to between 4000 and 3000 BC. This makes winegrowing part of our history as human beings. With over 1 million ha grown (15% of the world total and 30% of the total in Europe), there is absolutely no doubt that Spain is one of the largest vineyards in the world. The country produces more than 32 million hl each year and 23 million of them are used to supply foreign markets; this means it is also a leading exporter.
Although the importance of tradition is particularly notable in the winemaking processes used in the more than 4000 wineries in Spain, according to figures released by the Spanish Wine Market Observatory (OEMV), this important part of the Spanish business fabric is also undergoing an unstoppable revolution with the implementation of new technologies. For the 70 Qualified Designations of origin (in Spanish, DOC), this innovation helps them move into more competitive precision winegrowing to make high-quality wines at sustainable production costs.
New tools to speed up decision-making processes
Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, Cloud Computing, Business Intelligence, drones … All these technologies have forced their way into the winegrowing sector and speeded up strategic decision-making processes across the board. They use objective information and data: from sensors to algorithms and data-processing protocols capable of analysing an endless number of variables quickly, accurately and efficiently.
However, they go well with tradition. There is nothing strange in finding voracious bats and popular ‘ladybirds’, some with their own ‘hotels’ for insects, sharing spaces with drones, the new tenants of wineries, to prevent, control and reduce the possibility of damage caused by pests such as phylloxera, a task that has required visual inspections of vineyards until now. With sustainability as an ever-present, they are ceasing in the use of pesticides, in order to leave pest control to nature and increase the natural balance, minimising the use of chemicals in the fight against unwanted parasites.
We now have applications that analyse and interpret the images taken by the drones. They relate the information to variables such as production, plant density and biomass, supplying breakdowns of information about crop maps and giving recommendations on fertilisation, irrigation, pruning and the variability of each plot analysed.
Big Data to increase competitiveness
This modernising process has created a new scenario, involving the use of digital pens that collect data to count racemes by grape size or weight throughout the ripening cycle or Big Data projects that make the wine sector more competitive and provide real-time monitoring of crops and the water stress of each vine, making the information available on mobile devices, by text message or Web application. There are now innovative smart-fermentation and wine-ageing processes that detect risk factors for prevention purposes and a long list of technologies designed to improve quality and reduce costs.
These include systems that analyse the alcohol volume, potassium and pH level of the grape in a matter of minutes, from daily conductivity-based soil analyses and the installation of weather stations on the vineyards themselves to detailed studies to help choose the right cork or grain of wood for the oak barrel to determine its porosity. All of this minimises the environmental footprint by reducing the use of plant-health products, fertilisers, and water for irrigation and power, including the use of geothermal energy to reduce carbon emissions.
The huge opportunity offered by e-commerce and wine tourism
Innovation goes beyond modernisation and the use of technology in production processes or the facilities available at the wineries. The Internet, new digital marketing tools and social media have found their place in wineries with three goals that stand out from the rest: to increase domestic and international sales through e-commerce, to promote wine tourism, and to attract ‘millennials’ and new consumers who are less familiar with the wine world to make it part of their cultural and leisure preferences.
E-commerce offers brands a new, more favourable environment full of opportunities. This environment offers consumers a different, unique experience with guidance and consultancy services, a personal approach and an online shopping process that is pleasant and safe, followed by careful delivery of the product. As a result, the proliferation and the boom of online stores selling an endless selection of different brands and wines comes as no surprise. Here, the experience is not limited simply to the purchase: users also look for recommendations by wine experts, which food to pair the wine with and price comparisons. And all that information needs to be updated constantly.
Wine tourism has also been important for the digitalisation of wineries, some of which have been turned into luxury hotels and conference centres designed by the best architects the world has to offer. Their gastronomy, prepared by famous chefs, wine routes, tasting sessions and social wine clubs have revolutionised tourism and led to the creation of websites that specialise in holidays related to the wine world.
The size of the wineries, a challenge for the incorporation of technology
Most Spanish wineries are SMEs, a condition which, to a certain extent, impedes their adaptation to precision winegrowing. To get around this obstacle, projects have been launched to develop systems capable of integrating different sensor technologies and Big Data into professional vineyards for which, as a result of their small size, this kind of individual investment is not financially viable. Among other developments, the creation of working parties within the framework of the Programa Nacional de Desarrollo Rural (National Rural Development Programme) financed by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Foodstuffs and Environment (MAPAMA) and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) focuses on collaboration between different vineyards in a specific geographical area.
Online sales can also be a new channel for small winegrowers to explore. Accordingly, it is fundamental to first of all study the operating requirements and costs of such initiatives in order to assess the suitability of the winery setting up its own online store, using third-party stores or simply placing its products on a marketplace.
Innovation requires new professional profiles
All these new technologies help expand markets and attract and retain domestic and international customers; however, they also pose important challenges in terms of logistics and brand strategy. The increase in the use of technology in the winegrowing industry is creating a new working environment that requires good training and qualified personnel. From experts in data analysis and professionals with extensive knowledge of digital marketing and SEO (Web positioning) who are capable of approaching new markets and attracting consumers who have little knowledge of the wine world, to creators and designers capable of reinventing packaging and labelling, working hand-in-hand with highly professionalised sales departments. Wines with new tastes and colours – a great leap forward from the classical standards of the sector of only a few years ago.
Tradition is not incompatible with innovation. Together, the two open up a huge world of opportunity. It is simply a question of knowing how to take advantage of it. Let’s raise our glasses to this age-old sector with Bacchus, the god of wine and the harvest.