A clever piece of technology and a Wine Australia scholarship are helping James Hook look at old vineyards in new ways.
For his Masters degree at the University of Adelaide, Mr Hook is investigating traditional approaches to assessing vineyard quality and whether or not they need tweaking or rethinking in the 21st century.
Part of the problem is that while there is a lot of information about the importance of how the vine canopy relates to the finished grape, in a practical sense measurements are just too time-consuming to take.
The recent release of the VitiCanopy app by University of Adelaide researchers (Mr Hook is part of the wider project team) has changed that. As well as helping commercial growers assess their own vineyards, it allows researchers to efficiently gather enough data to help determine the information that is actually the most valuable.
‘For example, the relationship between yield and pruning weight is a traditional way to measure vine balance, but it is limited because you can only take it once a year and you have to look backwards – you’re looking at what occurred in the past, not the current season’, Mr Hook said.
‘Trying to measure vineyard performance in the season by looking at how the vine changes throughout has more relevance because a grower can see what they can manipulate during the season. I started out with about 30 measurements and I think I can cut that down to about 8 and get something that’s relevant.’
Mr Hook said VitiCanopy had great potential for validating work such as shoot thinning. ‘You can take a measurement before and afterwards and see the effectiveness of that treatment, if you are making a difference to the canopy’, he said. ‘We are also using it in trial work – it’s a very simple tool if you are looking at an irrigation trial or a fertiliser trial. You can actually see how your treatment changes growth rate.’
A consultant viticulturist with Adelaide-based DJS Growers for the past 10 years, Mr Hook is studying part-time with support from a Wine Australia scholarship, which contributes to his operating costs. His research is looking at Shiraz vineyards in McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek.
‘Because I’m studying part-time I’ve had the advantage of being able to collect more data than if I was doing it full-time’, he said. ‘I’ve had three years of data collected and I’m heading into the fourth year in the 2017 vintage. What we seem to be able to show is that you can monitor canopy growth and how much light is getting into the canopy, and that that is a major driver of fruit quality.’
The work is generating great interest, including at the recent International Terroir Congress in Oregon, where Mr Hook presented a poster paper. Closer to home, other students are looking to extend the research into other varieties and regions.
‘It’s been a great project and the scholarship has been a great help’, he said. ‘I think if you’re a professional working in viticulture and you’re looking to push yourself it is a no brainer to apply for it.’
Applications for Wine Australia’s PhD and Masters by Research scholarships close on 4 November 2016.