We have all read about drones over Afghanistan being remotely operated from the UK but now it seems that a chateaux owner in Bordeaux with deep pockets has invested 50,000 Euros in a newly-developed vineyard drone for his numerous estates. Equipped with cameras and other sensors these unmanned mini-helicopters can measure plant damage, disease and grape ripeness among various other parameters. The idea is to employ plot-by-plot precision viticulture so that fertiliser and other treatments can be used more precisely and efficiently.
This would seem to fly in the face of those estates who have seemed to have regressed and returned to biodynamic farming principles. This involves among other methods using horses in the vineyard to avoid compacting the soil too much and a ban on the use of artificial fertilizer which is replaced by field sprays including horn manure and horn silica. All these preparations are applied according to the phases of the moon. Currently very few of the Bordeaux chateaux are fully biodynamic but the most successful one, 5th Growth Pontet-Canet, has produced wines in recent years to rival all of the First Growths.
So has technology improved fine wine production? Undoubtedly. I always ask friends when they last had a badly made wine as opposed to a wine they didn’t enjoy. Invariably they scratch their heads and look at me blankly. In our lifetime wine has improved markedly from the days of poorly made, rustic plonk which was quite often unpalatable at any price to mass-produced brands which are excellent examples of great wine for barely more than a fiver. But technology is nothing new. Bordeaux chateaux owners down the centuries have been continuously upgrading their viticultural practices. First it was new wineries and storage rooms, then some of them adopted machine harvesting (though most have now reverted to hand picking) whilst now it is gravity fed wineries or optical sorting machines, satellite imagery and drones. This has undoubtedly raised standards but some fear that it has erased character and favours those estates with deep pockets. Hence the reversion to biodynamic practices. But overall technology can only be a good thing if it increases quality not only in the fine wine market but the global wine market too.