IGWS leads innovation in wine industry

The Dassie vineyard robot.

The development of South Africa’s first prototype vineyard robot; a sensory facility where expert tasting panels can compare the aroma and mouth feel of different wines; funding of a full-time coordinator for the six months’ long internship programme for students in viticulture and oenology; a website; an own newspaper and the support of information days by which relevant know how is provided to the local wine and viticulture industries.

These are some of the success stories of Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Institute for Grape and Wine Sciences (IGWS). It was founded in 2013 thanks to funding received from the Reinet Foundation, VinPro and Sanlam.

To celebrate the IGWS’s fifth anniversary, role players in the local wine and viticulture industries recently gathered on L’Omarins Wine Estate of Stellenbosch University chancellor Dr Johann Rupert.

The chair of the IGWS board, Dr Marius Lambrechts of Distell, and the acting dean of the University of Stellenbosch Faculty of AgriSciences, Professor Danie Brink, both emphasised how important the financial backing, advice and support from industry have been in the successes of the IGWS and partners such as the University of Stellenbosch.

“The way in which the IGWS has been able to connect and work together with industry to promote innovation and collaboration has become a model that the Faculty of AgriSciences and the University of Stellenbosch would like to emulate,” Professor Brink added.

Dr Rupert expressed strong concern over the marketing of South African wines overseas. He was also worried about the sustainability of the local wine industry in light of factors such as climate change, droughts, political changes, the continued presence of grapevine leafroll virus and consumer demand for wines with lower alcohol levels.

He pledged further support to the activities of the IGWS and challenged academics and researchers to be innovative and forward-thinking regarding issues pertaining to the local industry.

“We need you to do relevant work so that we, as producers, can be ethical in everything we do – from the vineyeards to our cellar practices,” Dr Rupert said.

IGWS also shares relevant research findings and information about best practices with winemakers, viticulturists, producers, marketers and the media, on a range of topics from drought support and water management to the best pruning methods.

The IGWS website (www.igws.co.za) is a virtual handbook and source of news and information for the industry. Support during industry information days, a regular newspaper, monthly e-mailed newsletters, books and fact sheets form part of this package.

The institute supports the expansion of infrastructure that make such endeavours possible. In this regard it has recently funded new equipment and the expansion of facilities in the University of Stellenbosch Department of Viticulture and Oenology (DVO).

The IGWS also invests in additional human resources to support research endeavours; consequently 17 additional staff members have been appointed at the University of Stellenbosch since 2013.

This makes it possible for University of Stellenbosch researchers to test and develop technologies such as drones and handheld sensors. They also test how oxygen, temperature and yeasts influence the quality of white wines in particular. Other topics being investigated include aspects about wine marketing, consumers’ experience of wines and the reaction of vines to changing environmental conditions in light of climate change.

Thanks to support from Sanlam, the IGWS was able to fund the setting up of an advanced sensory tasting facility at the DVO. Trained panel members now help researchers and winemakers to describe and pinpoint the specific sensory quality – such as mouth feel, aroma and bouquet – of their wines. Much work is currently being done on chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc wines.

Sensory analyses were recently done of the 10 best wines in the 2016 Top Chenin Blanc competition, in an effort to build up profiles of the aspects that set winning wines apart. Similar analyses were done for the Top 10 Sauvignon Blanc wines and the Top 12 Shiraz Challenge wines.

Guests had a closer look at the IGWS viticulture platform’s flagship project, the Dassie vineyard robot prototype. It carries various sensors that can measure moisture levels, temperature and other stress indicators of a row of vines.

The sensors can also test the sugar content and ripeness of bunches of grapes. The university contracted the Council for Science and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 2016 to build the Dassie’s basic mechanics and sensors. IGWS staff and associates are now putting the Dassie through its paces, and are investigating its further development and use. It is hoped to commercialise the prototype in collaboration with the university’s LaunchLab.

“The robot is being developed to navigate autonomously through a vineyard, and to gather up-to-date high resolution information thanks to the cameras, sensors and software it carries,” explained Proffessor Melané Vivier of the DVO.

“It can do so for a whole vineyard, only a section of it, a few vines or even just one or two specific bunches of grapes.”

Berno Greyling, a mechanical engineer in the IGWS team, believes that the university is leading vineyard robotics initiatives worldwide. Such robots have the advantage over drones in that they can also survey underneath a vineyard canopy, and their use is not limited by legislation.

The mobile sensors developed for the Dassie vineyard robot could also be used on a drone or even mounted on the back of a fourwheel motorcycle.

“The technology which is being developed for the Dassie will not only benefit the wine and grape industries, but could also be used by other agricultural sectors,” Professor Vivier added during her overview of the IGWS’ endeavours.

She sees the Dassie as a prime example of how the IGWS has been able to help academics at SU and at other institutions to take a new look at their endeavours and their links with industry. “Industry representatives have been part of our focus groups right from the start, and provide regular input about what they’d like such a robot to do,” she said.

A centre for innovation is the next item on the university’s academics’ wish list, which, according to Professor Vivier, could improve the transfer of knowledge to the industry, and help to commercialise technologies being developed, thanks to IGWS funding.