High-throughput identification of digital traits encapsulating the changes in plant’s internal structure under drought stress, based on hyperspectral imaging (HSI) is a challenging task. This is due to the high spectral and spatial resolution of HSI data and lack of labelled data. Therefore, this work proposes a novel framework for phenotypic discovery based on autoencoders, which is trained using Simple Linear Iterative Clustering (SLIC) superpixels. The distinctive archetypes from the learnt digital traits are selected using simplex volume maximisation (SiVM). Their accumulation maps are employed to reveal differential drought responses of wheat cultivars based on t-distributed stochastic neighbour embedding (t-SNE) and the separability is quantified using cluster silhouette index. Unlike prior methods using raw pixels or feature vectors computed by fusing predefined indices as phenotypic traits, our proposed framework shows potential by separating the plant responses into three classes with a finer granularity. This capability shows the potential of our framework for the discovery of data-driven phenotypes to quantify drought stress responses. © 2017, Springer International Publishing AG.