For centuries, winemakers have been working to understand the factors governing what makes one wine fabulous and another forgettable. At the most basic level, such localized characteristics as climate and weather, soil composition and the slope of the ground impart a distinctive flavor to a given grape. For quality control purposes, Europe's Common Market Organization for Wine (CMO) requires that all wine-producing countries maintain a register of vine cultivation. But a lack of data collection standardization among the growers has soured the potential utility of such a database. To that end, a satellite-based project uncorked earlier this year--dubbed, appropriately enough, Bacchus--may help.

Bankrolled in part by the European Commission, Bacchus aims to provide the most detailed views yet of the continent's vineyards using georeferenced satellite and aerial images. So far, researchers have obtained multispectral satellite images of up to 0.65-meter resolution, and higher-resolution images are expected in the near future, as the European Space Agency's next-generation Earth Observation satellite data roll in. By layering various data sets--those describing the vine inventories, meteorological data and so on--scientists hope not only to make good on the CMO record-keeping demands, but to identify promising new areas for cultivation. (In the satellite-based image shown here, reddish colors reveal south-facing slopes, which receive longer periods of sunshine; lighter, "cooler" colors indicate north-facing slopes.)

In the meantime, enologists will wait for Bacchus to bear fruit. "We know this project is the way to go in the future," comments Fulvio Comandini of Italy's Frascati Controlled Origin Denomination consortium of winemakers. "Bacchus will give us--and all the other Controlled Origin Denominations across the country too--a customized information system to more precisely manage our entire system of production and also a fully objective means of guaranteeing the quality of our wine to the market."