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Grapevine diseases and the importance of early detection

The vintage of 2023 will be remembered as one of the most challenging for European viticulture, especially for the southern countries. The reason is that vintners are facing extreme weather conditions, along with fungal disease outbreaks in the majority of the winemaking regions of Europe. Vineyards are intricate ecosystems, with grapevines being particularly vulnerable to various diseases.

These diseases can be caused by fungi, bacteria, viruses, and even tiny pests, thus, understanding these challenges is essential for ensuring healthy vines and producing remarkable wines. Two of the major fungal diseases that the European vintners had to deal with during 2023 are downy mildew and powdery mildew. Downy Mildew (Plasmopara viticola) is caused by a fungus-like organism and spread from plant to plant by airborne spores. It is a disease of wet weather as the infection is favoured by prolonged leaf wetness. It results in yellowish lesions on the upper side of the leaves and a white, cottony growth on the underside. If not treated, it can lead to defoliation and crop loss. On the other side, powdery mildew is caused by the fungus Erysiphe necator and manifests as white, powdery spots on the leaves, shoots, and even grapes, which can reduce photosynthesis, vine vigour, and fruit quality. Early season control is important to prevent disease build-up.

For that purpose, early warning systems, which alert growers about potential disease outbreaks or conditions favourable for disease development, play a crucial role in ensuring the health of the vineyards and, consequently, the impact on the quality of the grapes that will be produced. In a nutshell, there are eight reasons that can summarize the importance of early disease detection in the vineyards:

  • Mitigating Severe Outbreaks: Catching a disease in its earliest stages often means that fewer vines are affected. Early intervention can prevent an infection from becoming widespread and causing significant damage to neighbouring vines and vineyards.

  • Economic Implications: Treating an entire vineyard for a disease is expensive. Early detection can localize treatments, saving growers significant amounts of money. Moreover, an infection can compromise grape quality, affecting the vineyard's yield, and leading to revenue losses for vintners and winemakers. Preventing or containing diseases ensures that the harvest is of the highest quality, allowing for better market prices and the provision to winemakers of high-quality grapes.

  • Reduced Input Use: If diseases are detected early, growers might be able to use non-chemical interventions and apply treatments more judiciously. This not only saves costs but also reduces the environmental impact and potential chemical residues on grapes.

  • Safeguarding Reputation: For wine producers, reputation is paramount. A consistent track record of producing high-quality wines can be jeopardized by a single poor harvest due to disease. An early warning system helps in maintaining the consistency of the product.

  • Resource Optimization: Knowing in advance about potential disease risks allows growers to allocate resources more effectively. They can prioritize which vineyard sections to monitor more closely or decide where to deploy labour for potential interventions.

  • Enhanced Research and Knowledge: Regular monitoring and early detection contribute to a better understanding of how diseases spread and behave. This knowledge can be invaluable for researchers developing new treatment methods or disease-resistant grape varieties.

  • Supporting Ecosystem Health: A disease-free vineyard supports a balanced ecosystem. Healthy vines are more resilient to other stresses, such as climatic variations and water stress. Especially for organically managed vineyards, the reduced need for interventions helps the protection of beneficial organisms that reside in the vineyard ecosystem.

  • Planning and Management: Having a heads-up about potential disease risks allows vineyard managers to plan ahead. This might involve adjusting vineyard management techniques, training staff about specific diseases, or even modifying harvest schedules.

In conclusion, early warning systems in vineyards are not just tools for disease management; they are integral components of modern and sustainable viticulture. By predicting and promptly addressing potential threats, vineyard managers can ensure the longevity of their vines, the quality of their grapes, and the success of their operations. As technology evolves, there are numerous tools that may be used for effective disease detection and early warning, including remote sensing solutions - such as UAVs equipped with multi-spectral cameras- and disease prediction software that combines meteorological data and other environmental and observation data to predict the likelihood of disease outbreaks.


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