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food / travel

Barolo 4.0? How Artificial Intelligence Is Making The Best Wines Better

The Viberti Barolo winery in the Piedmont region of Italy employs cutting-edge solutions to preserve tradition and craftsmanship regardless of severe climate change.

Barolo 4.0? How Artificial Intelligence Is Making The Best Wines Better

Making wine is more than just squeezing grapes and putting them in barrels.

Dario d'Elia

VERGNE — Barolo and Industry 4.0 seem like an oxymoron of winemaking. Any wine, with which we associate a taste or a memory, can be distinguished by so many attributes, but not the industrial one. It is a mockery, an insult, a diminutio of craftsmanship intelligence.

However, according to Claudio Viberti, third-generation barolista of the family business of the same name in the town of Vergne (in the northwestern region of Piemonte), one should not be suspicious of the term Industry 4.0: “When applied to our field, it is useful to safeguard and enhance the craftsmanship of a product that today, for a variety of reasons, including climate change, we can no longer make as we would like to,” he told us. “The goal of maintaining that taste of tradition forces us to behave differently. We can't do it with the same methods; that would be a mockery.”

Metropolitan certainties may be wavering: where the myth of “farmer’s wine” still exists, some steps of innovation in the winery have been lost. Technology allows for more accurate monitoring, prediction of the effects of interventions, timely management of timing and other stages of production. Because until proven otherwise, squeezing grapes and putting them in barrels is a very different thing from making wine.

Industry 4.0 in the winery 

In Vergne, in the municipality of Barolo, Viberti’s new winery under construction houses ten 4.0 fermenters of about 7 thousand liters each. At first glance they might look like ordinary steel cylinders, as seen in many wineries, but they make it possible to control winemaking and post-winemaking processes with computerized management, even remotely.

In practice, sensors, internal handling rotors and artificial intelligence facilitate the winemaker’s work. They facilitate, but they certainly do not replace. Because we are talking about professionals who have a clear objective, but little control over the key ingredient of their work, which is nature: with each harvest they have to solve the tetris that nature drops from the sky to the earth.

Without going into too much detail about winemaking, it is good to know that climate change is mainly responsible for today’s difficulties. For example, Nebbiolo grapes, with which Barolo is made, were usually harvested on All Saints’ Day, November 1: “With the first fogs, that’s were the name comes from (Nebbiolo and nebbia, fog in English, have the same semantic root, ed.), but temperatures have changed and I don’t remember a harvest in the last 10 years that started after October 15. This means picking warmer grapes with a different sugar component and alcohol level,” Viberti pointed out to us.

It’s all about managing the kinetics of fermentation

In short, the procedural recipe that was once used has been turned upside down. Certainly the harvested grapes, stripped of stems, are always gently pressed and placed in fermenters to start alcoholic fermentation and maceration. But, as 27-year-old Andrea Mastrantuono, the winery’s winemaker, explained to us, this first process now takes between 7 and 20 days, “although there are wineries that go up to two months.”

During this time, it’s all about managing the kinetics of fermentation, driven mainly by temperature regulation. Heating is more complicated than cooling, since it is more difficult to implement it uniformly. Here, the fermenter succeeds first of all in being more precise in its action and secondly in providing more accurate data.

After that, as Mastrantuono mentioned, one can remotely intervene 24 hours a day via pc or smartphone and also receive any security alerts. This facilitation helps reduce the time of each human action by 80%, resulting in an increase in overall quality. This is an important help for a small-to-medium sized company like Viberti, which produces 150-200 thousand bottles per year.

The same advantage comes when batonage is practiced: “As soon as fermentation is over, the solid residue that settles is a noble lees that if well moved and stirred gives flavors, aromas and sweetness. That sense of roundness that we often hear about,” the winemaker clarifies.

Technology allows for more accurate monitoring, prediction of the effects of interventions and management of timing.


The recipe suggested by artificial intelligence

In every Italian winery there is always a logbook that the winemaker constantly updates with every day’s data and a chronicle of the actions taken. An expert eye can reconstruct from this information a kind of recipe applied to the production of a single wine, which is obviously marked by a unique and distinctive taste. As the variables change, the outcome changes, and in wine production this is a challenge of balancing taste, nature and human expertise.

One should not ignore technologies that can enhance that traditional aspect we all seek.

With this in mind, Viberti has incorporated all the data and recipes used in the last 10 years into the management center of the new 4.0 fermenters. In this way the AI is able to suggest similarities between years: “It does not provide solutions but reminds us which year we can be inspired by. And so, on the one hand, we know which actions are correct to replicate and which perhaps did not yield the expected results,” Claudio Viberti pointed out.

Winemakers, as they have always done, will continue to observe the color of the must and listen to its bubbling to assess fermentation kinetics, but today they can have a more accurate historical memory in analyzing the details: “This tool was created to ensure less intervention in the wines while elevating their quality and favoring their expression.”

Viberti’s new winery under construction houses ten 4.0 fermenters of about 7 thousand liters each.


From the medical field to the winery

The latest development concerns the introduction of “an exceptional piece of machinery,” as assured by Viberti himself: “It comes from the medical field and it is a molecular gas filter. This process reduces oxygen and consequently reduces CO2. And so we can reduce sulfur dioxide and any risk of oxidation to a minimum,, and even (in some wines) eliminate the little bit of bubbling that sometimes occurs naturally but flattens the taste.”

The central theme is that oxygen is a key component in the fermentation and maturation stages, but in pre-bottling it is an enemy. It is responsible for oxidation, which practically changes the color of the wine and resets the taste. This explains the presence of sulfur dioxide: it protects and has an antiseptic action on both bacteria and yeast. With the 4.0 device developed by the Veneto-based company Experti, its use is reduced to the minimum, almost 40-50% less.

In short, according to Viberti, “one should not ignore technologies that can enhance that traditional aspect we all seek. More than modern, one should be contemporary.”

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