Wine makers look to the stars for better quality grape yields

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The Independent Online

When Ariadne, abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos, caught the eye of Bacchus, he elevated her to the stars and turned her into a constellation.

Now a consortium of 14 European public and private wine makers has approached the European Space Agency to help face down the challenge of the New World with the help of satellite technology. They will use a complex mapping system to construct images of some of the most prestigious vineyards, indicating to growers where to plant and when to harvest the grapes.

The leaders of the Bacchus project, named after the Roman god of wine, say the detailed analysis of growing conditions could lead to the revival of older and hard-to-grow varieties. Consumers would benefit from better quality and more varied wines.

The £2.5m programme, backed by the European Commission, will be tested in growing areas of Portugal, France, Italy and Spain.

The system will provide information including the angle of slope, humidity and soil type, to give growers the best opportunity to produce the perfect vintage. The distinctive make-up of the elements in a region is what gives wines their unique flavours.

Early testing areas include the vineyards of Frascati in Italy, first cultivated by the Romans. The European Space Agency will continuously beam back high-resolution pictures from a range of satellites to monitor the fruit as it matures, thus helping farmers manage their crops.

Luigi Fusco, of the European Space Agency, said: "We are not talking about helping farmers grow more, but making it a better quality."

British consumers are likely to be among the greatest beneficiaries of any improvements.

The UK is the largest importer of wine in the world, with sales increasing by 27 per cent between 1997 and 2001, according to the latest industry figures. Annual consumption of wine in Britain is equivalent to more than 25 litres per adult.

Much of the increase has been driven by the rise of New World wines, although French wines remain the most popular among British drinkers, cornering 30 per cent of the market.

The latest studies showed that the British drinker remains generally conservative in taste with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot accounting for 80 per cent of all wine sales in the UK.

Mr Fusco said that as producers better tailored their grape types to the conditions, a greater variety of wines would be likely. "If we can accurately demonstrate that in these areas a normal chardonnay is no good at all, the growers will find it is better to go back to the grapes used 50 to 100 years ago," he said.

Despite the advances, Adam Lechmere, editor-at-large of Decanter magazine, said the new technology would be unlikely to sweep away the traditions of "trial and error" with grape growing.

He said the biggest producers were likely to benefit most from processing the satellite information. "Anything that tells you more about the geophysical make-up of a vineyard is extremely helpful," he said.