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SA wine industry ups its research game to adapt to climate change

To find new ways to manage climate change, the South African wine industry is researching smart-agri tools, drought tolerant cultivars, water stress management and efficient irrigation management. According to Winetech executive manager, Gerard Martin, South Africa's wine industry has been focussing on research related to climate change for more than a decade now, however, there is currently a big drive towards researching different ways in which the industry can monitor and manage water usage more efficiently.

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Research projects that are currently in progress include:

Database for integrated climate, remote sensing and weather monitoring


“It is imperative that the industry make informed decisions regarding the suitability of specific areas for agriculture in the Western Cape in the context of global climate change, also taking economic pressures and future limited water supplies into account,” says Martin.

The integrated database project poses solutions based on past studies regarding climate change, water availability, soil and topographic data. This is integrated with new techniques such as remote sensing and machine learning to better understand and quantify change in the Western Cape.

“Quantifying climate change, as to where and when in the season the changes are most prominent is a key question for the future,” says Martin. “To be able to adapt effectively to climate change and seasonal variability (which manifests as extreme weather conditions) we also need to study the grapevine’s response to these changes.”

Water footprint assessment tool


“Knowledge of water footprints allows us to benchmark and identify areas for improvement in the production chain where it will have the biggest impact on reducing water use,” says Martin. The water footprint indicates the amount of water used to produce goods and services and is an indicator of sustainability.

The overall aim of this project will be to integrate various datasets into a framework that will simplify water footprint assessments, with a specific focus on grape production and its derived products. Upon successful completion, this project will provide guidelines for determining water footprints at different scales in the wine industry, as well as a framework for integrating remote sensing, geospatial and other datasets to determine water footprints at various levels in the production chain.

Gerard Martin, executive manager of Winetech

Grapevine’s response to water stress


“Both grapevine scion cultivars and rootstock varieties differ in their tolerance and response to limited water supplies. The reaction of a grafted vine to water stress can’t necessarily be predicted from the scion and rootstock varieties’ individual reactions,” says Martin.

This study is based on unanswered or novel questions regarding water stress and managing irrigation to avoid unacceptable levels of stress that would have negative impacts on grape yield and quality.

“We put different grapevine scion-rootstock combinations under defined water stress to compare the molecular, metabolic stress fingerprints. In the end, we will be able to characterise the differences in water acclimatisation potential of the different plant materials to water stress to improve viticultural practices,” says Martin.

Irrigation in high potential trellis systems in the coastal region


This field experiment has the potential to gain knowledge on how to improve the yields of grapevines without necessarily compromising wine quality, particularly in the coastal region of the Western Cape.

Higher-yielding trellis systems are tested in combination with different irrigation strategies. The study will specifically measure the water use, yield and quality from bush vines and vines that are drip-irrigated, on vertical shoot positioned (VSP) trellis systems compared to that of grapevines trained onto high potential yield trellis systems in the coastal region.

The economic input requirements for grape production of different canopy management/trellis systems and irrigation strategy combinations will also be compared.

Assessing the drought tolerance of selected grapevine scion cultivars


Grapevines depend on adequate water for sustainable yield and quality. According to climate change forecasts, rainfall in the Western Cape could become lower over time and drier conditions are likely to go hand in hand with increased air temperatures. In the drier regions such as the Swartland, many vineyards are grown dryland or with limited volumes of irrigation water. In regions where irrigation is possible, such as the Lower Olifants River, low winter rainfall in the catchment areas frequently results in water restrictions being imposed.

“The risk of yield losses for dryland, as well as irrigated vineyards could be reduced if drought tolerant scion cultivars are planted more extensively. This project will determine the drought tolerance of selected alternative scion cultivars in comparison to reference cultivars,” says Martin.

Other research projects


Winetech also recently commissioned research into machine learning, or artificial intelligence using big data; the link between remote sensing and vineyard performance; and a web-based application for phenolic analysis.

Learning and development


Apart from Winetech’s role in terms of research and development, the business unit also coordinates the Wine Industry Learning and Development Strategy, one of the outcomes of the wine industry’s strategic framework, known as Wise. Its vision is to develop the industry into one that is built on the capabilities of its people, is able to maximise its return on investment and becomes an employer of choice for new entrants.

To this end, an advisory committee was established and a dedicated L&D manager was appointed and an online learner management system was launched. A competency matrix which includes a list of positions in the industry, basic key performance areas, qualifications and programmes providing direction towards further development is currently being developed.
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