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Champagne Keen to Investigate Machine Harvesting

Seasonal workers pick grapes in Champagne; a "Clever Robots for Crops" technician (C) carries out tests on a manipulator
© AFP/CROPS | Seasonal workers pick grapes in Champagne; a "Clever Robots for Crops" technician (C) carries out tests on a manipulator
Increased employment costs prompt a new look at picking the region's grapes.

Will Champagne convert to mechanical harvests in the near future? That question is au courant since Pascal Férat, president of the Syndicat de Vignerons (SGV) and co-chairman of the Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne told a bunch of journalists that Champagne needed to investigate the issue further.

The reason for this bold statement is the new French fiscal law regarding seasonal workers, which was passed in March. Up till now, winemakers paid very little in the way of social charges for harvest workers, but from this year the charges will increase significantly.

Champagne producers are especially hard hit, as all grapes are still harvested by hand. The harvest generally takes 5 to 10 days and 120,000 seasonal workers are employed across the region. Paying the increased social charges means that around 30 million euros will be added to the producers' total bill, according to Alain Danselme, general director of the SGV.

A significant extra cost indeed – which could be easily reduced, should Champagne switch to machine harvesting. However, this is easier said than done. It's true that there are no specific restrictions included in the appellation rules regarding manual harvesting. The only stipulation is that the grapes have to be whole-bunch picked and pressed. The reason for this is that two-thirds of the Champagne grapes are black but are used to make a white wine, so skin contact has to be avoided as much as possible.

This is why mechanical harvesters used in many other wine regions have not been an option. These machines detach the grapes by shaking the vines vigorously, which often results in berries falling off the clusters and breaking in the process. Furthermore, mechanical harvesters do not differentiate between healthy ripe berries and unripe or rotten ones; instead, undesirable grapes are often removed at a later time on a sorting table – a process which is forbidden in Champagne.

Other difficulties in using existing machine harvesters are the dense planting system and the patchwork of vineyards which make up the Champagne landscape. There are around 240,000 vineyards spread across the 34,000 hectares of the appellation, with an average size of just 0.12 hectares. Only one meter separates the rows and there are around 8,000 vines planted per hectare. Add to this the fact that 60 percent of the vineyards are planted on slopes and you can see why the bulky existing harvesters are not best suited to harvesting grapes in Champagne.

Guy Julien (L) and Christophe Millot (R) pictured with their Wall-Ye vineyard robot
© AFP | Guy Julien (L) and Christophe Millot (R) pictured with their Wall-Ye vineyard robot

That said, a small grape-picking robot, or a robotic arm which could be used with existing machinery, could do the job in years to come – providing the manufacturers can guarantee whole-cluster picking.

A potential candidate could be the Wall-Ye V.I.N. robot, designed by Burgundian Christophe Millot specifically for the wine industry and released onto the market last year. Whilst there have been no reported harvest tests of Wall-Ye, the robot’s pruning skills have been tested in several vineyards, including the prestigious Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The Wall-Ye uses GPS-based tracking and mapping technology to move from vine to vine. Its artificial intelligence allows it to recognize specific plant features and to record data on each vine.

Férat admitted that he had tested the robot in Champagne during the 2012 vintage, using it to collect valuable pre-harvest data including yields and the ripeness of the grapes. He was very impressed with the results and confirmed that the robots will be used again for large-scale tests this year.

Another candidate could come from the European Union-funded Clever Robots for Crops (CROPS) project, which started work in 2010. CROPS says that “several technological demonstrators will be developed for high-value crops like greenhouse vegetables, fruit in orchards, and grapes for premium wines."

Robotic platforms will be capable of selective harvesting of fruit: detecting the grapes, determining their ripeness, moving towards the bunches, and softly detaching them from the vine. In fact, Munich's Institute of Applied Mechanics has been working on the creation of a robotic arm which can be used with existing machinery to pick whole cluster grapes. It will be demonstrated during the upcoming vintage.

According to Férat, the technical services of the SGV and CIVC are carefully following all these developments, but have not yet offered to test the robots in their vineyards. However, he did not rule out tests for the 2014 vintage.

Champagne as a region has traditionally embraced new developments, providing they do not affect the quality. Well-known examples of mechanizing key processes are the use of gyro-palettes for riddling, and the use of ice baths and disgorging machines which have now both have become the norm rather than the exception. If in years to come a robot is successfully tested and the CIVC is happy that machine harvesting will not affect the quality of the grapes, mechanical harvesting could be the way of the future.

Images showing the gentle grape "grippers" on the CROPS manipulator
© CROPS | Images showing the gentle grape "grippers" on the CROPS manipulator

Related story:

French Vineyards Hit By New Costs

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