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Supercomputers stomp grapes to improve US wine

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Researchers at Virginia Tech have modeled and mapped grape production across an area spanning 19 states along the eastern US. Supercomputers helped crunch the numbers and stomp the grapes in an effort to speed wine development in the region. What these scientists have learned could aid farmers across the world and protect crops as our climate changes.

A wine’s character comes from its terroir — the soil, weather, topography, and vintner’s expertise. To accelerate the development of the terroir in the eastern US,scientists looked to the BlueRidge supercomputer. What they’ve found is more than delicious — it just might save the food stock for the entire planet.

A team of researchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) has been working on models of how grape varieties might interact with environmental factors. Their research, funded in part by the Virginia Wine Board and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture, seeks to plot the suitability of a grape variety to specific sites in the eastern US.

Eastern seaboard
Researchers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) have modeled the performance of grape varieties over the 19 states along the eastern US.

“The overall objective is for the eastern US to catch up with their counterparts in Europe and California,” says Peter Radics, PhD candidate in computer science at Virginia Tech.  “In Europe they’ve had centuries to develop their terroir. In California they’ve had a few decades, but when it comes to wine from Virginia or Georgia, it doesn’t have the same recognition.”

The scope of the Virginia Tech study covered an area about 1,387,150 km (535,581 miles). Modeling a single grape variety on various plot sizes across decades brings the number of data points to nearly one trillion— far outstripping the capabilities of a desktop computer.

Radics and his colleagues from the Center for Geospatial Information Technology (CGIT) took their modeling problem to Virginia Tech’s Advanced Research Computing (ARC). Using the BlueRidge cluster, they calculated minimum and maximum temperatures and growing degree days over the last 44 years, and then ran their simulations through a multi-criteria decision analysis algorithm.

The researchers then fed the results of these models into their site assessment tool, where grape growers can work with an interactive map to receive BlueRidge’s prognosis for a specific grape variety.

To broaden the tool's assessment ability, the scientists have started developing an HPC–enabled geo-information processing (HPGP) pipeline to assess additional factors that would affect a grape’s performance. By considering additional variables such as biotic risks, growth stage, and cool hardiness, the portal promises to offer farmers a powerful tool for crop management.

Beyond just grapes, however, Radics sees a broad applicability for the site assessment tool. “You could generalize this procedure to any crop. Our goal is to be able to switch out the cultivar and use models found in the various disciplines to forecast crop suitability.”

Though the Virginia Tech's site assessment tool promises broad applicability and could provide farmers around the world with a crowd-sourced knowledge analyzed and plotted through high-performance computers for virtually any crop. However, for now the goal is to improve the wine made from grapes grown along the eastern seaboard of the US.

“To grow good quality grapes and make good wine, you need a lot of know-how," Radics says. “That know-how takes a lot of time to acquire. Our research could provide growers and vintners with a little bit of a short cut.”

--Lance Farrell

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