Winegrowing technique saved by innovation

Winegrowing technique saved by innovation
© Dr. Hermann Pilz

For many years, if you wanted to grow wine on steep slopes, you had to do everything by hand without the help of machines. After all, there were no machines that could effectively cultivate this type of land in terms of keeping competing plant growth at bay or applying fertilizer.

A shift for steep-slope winegrowing

For centuries, winemakers have had to endure painstaking manual labor with hoes and other simple tools. Pruning, maintaining vine foliage, and harvesting the grapes in autumn were likewise performed manually. All of the work on steep slopes had to be done by hand.

In the 1950s, simple equipment was finally developed that could be operated by the vineyard tractors available at the time. One such device was the wire rope hoist called the Binger Seilzug. It was developed in the German town of Bingen am Rhein and for many years was produced by the machine-building company of the same name. Using this hoist, winegrowers could perform simple cultivation work. But the tool required two operators and, because it still had to be pulled along by another machine, the equipment didn’t produce such stellar results. Other pioneers in agricultural machinery developed hose sprayers that were intended to facilitate plant protection – but this required the use of bulky backpack sprayers. In Germany, vineyards are considered steep when they exceed a 30% incline – it’s these steep vineyards that turn the arduous work into real torture over time.

Intense competition with direct access

Amid increasing competition, the strenuous physical work compounded by significantly higher production costs threatened the viability of growing wine on steep slopes. The cultivation of steep slope vineyards continued to decline over several decades despite having constituted the core of winemaking in Germany for centuries.

Financial calculations alone gave many winegrowers no other choice but to leave the steep slopes and pick up again in other regions, or to give up winegrowing altogether. Depending on the degree of mechanization, the work required for grape production in direct-access regions amounts to 200 to 250 hours; in steep slope regions, it is not uncommon to require 800 to 1,000 working hours per hectare and year. If you calculate expenses on the basis of the current minimum wage of €9.19, grape production in steep regions can reach €7,000 to €9000 per hectare. With yields of 8,000 to 10,000 kilograms per hectare in these areas, which naturally produce somewhat less than in direct-access regions, labor expenses alone account for €0.80 to €1 per kilogram of grapes. Compared with wines in flat regions produced with substantially lower costs, this is a major disadvantage and explains the decline of vineyards in steep slope regions. For a long time, this trend seemed irreversible.

Technical innovations and equipment solutions have become indispensable for steep-slope winegrowing

But winegrowers, vineyard owners, public and private consultants and research institutions active in the field of winegrowing and, most of all, manufacturers of agricultural machines wouldn’t settle for this outcome. An intensive search commenced for solutions that could mechanize and facilitate the necessary tasks. A breakthrough came in the form of a series of innovations, including the development of modern machine carriers and track systems that feature a safety connection to a carrier system and rope winch. These systems can be operated by one person.

While these track and rope mechanization systems (German: SMS and RMS combinations) require an investment of roughly one-quarter million euros per combination, they make it possible to generate an immensely higher output when used in steep vineyards with vertical ropes going downhill and with wire frames on level ground. The machines can be deployed in the steepest vineyards with up to 75% incline and on terraces. Production costs can thereby be significantly reduced, which greatly improves competitiveness and results in much lower production costs.

The benefit of a track-guided machine combination is its universal range of applications for almost any job required in the vineyard – whether for cultivation, to loosen the soil and remove unwanted growth among and under the vines, or plant protection and foliage maintenance. A real breakthrough came just a few years ago with the development of special harvesters that can be used on steep slopes; some of these machines even have special sorting equipment that produce better yields than harvesting by hand. The high expenses associated with harvest labor was one of the major problems with steep-slope winegrowing and its profitability – primarily because the workers who did the jobs are no longer around today, or at least there aren’t enough of them. The machines substantially increase the impact and flexibility during harvest, which, in light of climate changes in recent years, has proved to be another important advantage for steep-slope winegrowing – if not absolutely vital to it.

Technical innovations, new machines and equipment have become a crucial component of keeping winegrowing alive in old and traditional steep-slope vineyards. Monorack railways, developed by innovative companies and made for difficult-to-access terraces often located behind rocky cliffs, also played an important role here. They facilitate transport operations and, in many cases, make it possible to preserve the vineyards as they continue to shape the landscape in the Mosel, Württemberg and Baden regions.

The future of winegrowing

The stream of innovations has by no means abated. The next goal will be to produce autonomous vehicles and machines that can do the necessary tasks without putting human lives in danger. Drones will likewise be deployed more and more often, as they are particularly useful for improved monitoring and for targeted application of plant health measures. All of these activities and new technologies will be indispensable requirements for the preservation and future of winegrowing in valuable steep-slope regions. It is already evident that the use of new technologies and the capital necessary for it is bringing about a structural reform in winemaking that is long overdue. While the availability of (family) laborers previously set tight limits on the development of more effective, larger operations, today’s technologies enable winegrowing operations of 50, 100 or more hectares. In addition to preserving viticulture, the innovative technologies are promoting a structural reform in winegrowing that for a long time did not seem possible.

Dr. Hermann Pilz

Dr. Hermann Pilz has been in charge of the trade magazine WEINWIRTSCHAFT as chief editor for over 20 years. He loves writing about many different topics of the wine and spirits industry.