We’ll Make no Wine till the Sensor Tells us it’s Time

As IoT has already entered the wine industry, one group of scientists from Andalusia niche-down and look for ways to improve the Fino sherry fermentation process.

The last thing one thinks about while enjoying tapas and sipping a chilled glass of Fino sherry on a summer afternoon is that the dry sherry they are enjoying had to do some time locked up in a dark cellar before arriving at the table.

During fermentation, temperature, the level of light inside the cask, its condition and, very importantly, the ullage (the unfilled space within the barrel) all played a crucial role. With most other wines, the barrels are filled to the top to avoid oxidation, when making Fino sherry a gap is left which allows for the wine to evaporate in a phenomenon known as “merma.”

The cask needs to be topped off to keep its original level to maintain quality and even to avoid the wine going bad. While red wine casks are usually replaced every 3 to 8 years, sherry casks are kept onwards of 20, making the monitoring of cask condition a high priority.  

Several sensor-based monitoring systems have been developed the past couple of years for use in the wine industry. However, as was mentioned by the Internet of Food and Farm 2020 project, part of the Horizon 2020 European research programme, a team from the Universities of Cordoba and Malaga have created a prototype of a smart cork for Fino sherry and its unique requirements. It can monitor the wine in the cask in a way which, team leader Eduardo Cañete Carmona told me by email, “the hardware is not in contact with the wine, is easily installed, its cost (without the electronics) is practically the same as the corks already in place, and winemakers do not need to change the way they work, the adaptation process is immediate.”

They performed tests in “Bodegas San Acacio” a winery in Andalusia in the south of Spain.

Smart cork architecture

What Makes it Work

The smart cork is fitted with an Arduino Mega 2560 microcontroller, a SHT15 sensor for humidity and temperature, a Sonar SRF08 sensor to measure the ullage and amount of light (for detection of cracks in the cask), a real-time clock (DS1307), a ZigBee S2B to transmit data to the sink node along with a LED to indicate any abnormal readings. This is all run on a rechargeable 7.4V Lithium battery.

The real-time clock module initiates an event every 10 minutes in which the sensors all collect data, store them to SD cards which are then sent to the sink node. The board is then put into a deep sleep until the next clock-event.

The data generated by the smart corks is managed by the Google App Engine which, according to the study, “opens the door to the integration of multiple smart corks, even a worldwide adoption, without having to take into account the underlying hardware or to change the application logic.”

A REST API then allows external parties to view the data sent by the sensors, with the data ultimately being stored in the Google Cloud Datastore. Users access the UI and can see an overview of all the casks or chose to receive information for a specific barrel. This way the progression of individual casks can be compared with the others. Besides, alerts for emergency situations, such as a leak, can be automatically sent to users.

Smart cork before fitting to Sherry barrel.

Results and What’s Next

After a 19 day test period, results were deemed satisfactory by the research team. The smart cork was able to monitor the structural health of the cask, the ullage of the barrel, the room temperature, and the humidity. The tests, though, did show that “small cracks that allow the wine to filter through them do not produce a significant light intensity variation” meaning that another solution would be needed.

Plans for the future include reducing energy consumption, the size of the cork, additional sensors (pH, alcohol, etc.) and prediction algorithms to notify winemakers when they need to top off the casks.  

Given the exponential integration of IoT in agriculture and in a relevant field such as winemaking, there is no doubt that more and more developers catering to the specific needs of specialty wines will continue to create solutions.

According to Cañete, “Due to technology advancing  [so quickly], I am sure in the future we will see fully instrumented and connected casks that will help wine experts to follow the wine aging process in a more precise way and even help them to make better decisions.”

In the meanwhile, we can go on enjoying our glass and making plans for our next vacation.

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