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How Uruguay is Leading the Charge in Georeferencing Vineyards

How Uruguay is Leading the Charge in Georeferencing Vineyards

And why this could be a gamechanger for global wine lovers

A mosaic of vineyards in Uruguay | Photo Credit: Bodega Garzón

Uruguay is a relatively small wine producing country, especially compared to its South American neighbors Chile and Argentina, but one that nonetheless punches above its weight class where winemaking is concerned. Besides–and alongside–its rapidly increasing export activity, a growing reputation for bold yet fresh Tannats and vivid Albariños to rival Spain’s makes Uruguay worth more than just a blip on your wine radar for a multitude of reasons.

Here’s an especially compelling one: no other region, much less entire country, can boast what Uruguay has accomplished in terms of amassing a wealth of spatial vineyard data that can be accessed by producers and consumers alike. In an ongoing initiative which began over a decade ago, Uruguay’s wine governing body — its National Wine Institute (INAVI in Spanish) — endeavored to georeference 100 percent of the country’s vineyards. “The main reason for starting the program was the Institute’s desire to incorporate and develop new technologies for the control of viticulture,” says Franco Deleon, Geographic Data Department Manager of INAVI. Despite these straightforward initial intentions, however, Uruguay’s program ended up having much broader implications — and applications — and may serve as a model for similar programs in bigger and more historically illustrious regions.

What Is Georeferencing?

Georeferencing isn’t as simple as just mapping, though it provides useful data for that too. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “Georeferencing means that the internal coordinate system of a digital map or aerial photo can be related to a ground system of geographic coordinates.” Georeferencing is a complex, multi-faceted undertaking, but this is a good starting point for understanding what is going on in Uruguay right now. 

Creating this kind of integrated spatial database such as the one developed by INAVI, with partnership from Uruguay’s Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture, and Fisheries, is a sophisticated vineyard-plotting approach that has a number of practical uses. As an especially consumer-friendly feature already in play on some bottles, Uruguayan wines will have QR codes that can direct consumers to the exact vineyards where the grapes for a particular bottling were harvested, for example. Even more than that, the program is a public database that offers users the ability to zoom into specific plots, understand the aspect of certain vineyards, or even filter for specific grape varieties. (A fun bonus for geeks of underappreciated grapes such as Petit Manseng or Marselan, both which thrive in Uruguay.)

“I think it’s an amazing effort,” says Peter Granoff, MS, wine educator, and entrepreneur. “From a technical standpoint, when you look at their website, and how you filter by variety and locale, and all this other information, it’s amazing what they’ve done. And I think that has to be recognized.”

The Value of Uruguay’s Georeferencing Initiative

Georeferencing in action | Photo Credit: INAVI

Already, Uruguay’s producers are using the program to their advantage, especially for those who are experimenting with micro-terroirs and single vineyard expressions. “At Garzón we developed a premium tier called Petit Clos,” says Nicolas Bonino, marketing manager for Bodega Garzón, one of Uruguay’s largest and most exported brands. “The program and the QR code allow our clients around the world not only to better identify where Uruguay is, [still an unfortunate issue for a small country] but where Garzón is, and, even more, the specific location of that exact plot from which the grapes come. We find this information to be very illustrative and useful for the end consumer.” 

Having personally stood on the terrace of the Garzón property and witnessed the almost mosaic quality of the brand’s multitude of plots — this is an obvious and immediately applicable use of the system. “Our vineyard comprises over one thousand different plots, each one having its own microclimate, orientation, varied levels of humidity, sun exposure, and soil characteristics,” says Bonino.

More than just a useful tool for producers and consumers, however, the georeferencing initiative is also a source of pride, underscoring the ingenuity and ambition of Uruguay’s wine industry at large, and helping to position the region as a world class wine destination on the rise. “I think this system showcases the care for the vines and the input of technologies that Uruguay has,” says Pia Carrau, general manager of Bodega Cerro Chapeu, on Uruguay’s northeastern border with Brazil. “I think this is part of the DNA of our country, in terms of our literacy index — one of the highest in the world — so I think that showcasing this system to the final consumer helps [them] to understand our care and knowledge about viticulture and winemaking.”

The program also speaks to transparency, a growing concern among consumers, at an almost cellular level. “The georeferencing program provides a means to achieve detailed monitoring of each stage of the production process, from the vineyard to the wine bottle,” says Deleon. “This is essential for reliable traceability, allowing producers to identify the origin of each bottle of wine and guarantee its quality, safety, and authenticity.” 

“I think one of the more interesting aspects of the program is around this whole question of authenticity, which is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and is a much bigger cultural thing beyond wine,” add Granoff. “But it certainly impacts the food and wine industry. Consumers are legitimately concerned about where their food comes from.” Regardless of whether the average consumer understands or cares about things like soil type, vinification techniques, or even sulfites, being able to point to a spot in a vineyard and know the grapes came from there is a very simple way for a wine region to promote transparency and a willingness to include the consumer in all steps of the winemaking process.

The Future of Georeferencing

A wine label showing the informational QR code

For Uruguay, the georeferencing project will always be a work in progress in order to maintain its accuracy and utility for anyone who interacts with the system. “The program is currently still in operation since it is necessary to update the database every time there are changes in the vineyards,” says Deleon, “with new plantings, plant removals, etc.”

The question remains whether this will be a beacon for other wineries or regions with similar ambitions. “No contact has been made from other countries to request guidance to carry out a similar program,” says Deleon. At least to-date.

“There are wineries that are using, for example, drones to map their vineyards in minute detail, such as moisture content, temperature, etc.,” says Granoff. “It’s the same basic idea, but these are often funded by well resourced wineries. It’s not something that’s being done at a national level by a body like INAVI. That’s worthy of respect. And maybe it is the future.”