If you are interested in the history of wine, then you have probably already come across the word “phylloxera”. Behind this name which means “illness that withers leaves” is the story of the greatest plague to befall viticulture in its thousands of years of history. It caused a crisis that touched nearly every wine-producing region in the world.
Our story begins in the second half of the 19th century in France. Some experimental, yet incautious vine nursery owners imported American vines to France on the search for new wines. Far from imagining the disastrous consequences of what they had done, they continued to grow the diseased wines and root stocks. An epidemic was declared in the vineyards of Gard and the Bouches du Rhône which spread quickly to other regions, causing irreversible damage to the vines.
Experts were called to work out what was wrong with the vines, and they had a breakthrough on 15 July 1868, when they discover millions of aphids on the roots of an affected vine that was still alive. Phylloxera had reached France.
A closer look at phylloxera
Phylloxera is a louse from the United States of America which feasts on vines and had already been identified during the 1850s. There are two types:
- Phylloxera gallicole – which attacks the leaves, causing galls (abnormal growths) and yellowing on them. They do not impose immediate damage to the plant.
- Phylloxera radicicole – which attacks the roots. It bites the roots and sucks the sap out of them at a rate of knots. The root, as well as being damaged, becomes infected and within three years the vine will have died.
A fight to survive
In the 30 years after the louse arrived on French soil, a colossal amount of Europe’s vineyards had been affected. In 1875, 85 million hectolitres of wine were produced in France. Five years later, this figure had dropped to 25 million hectolitres. Between 1875 and 1900, more than half of France’s vine-growing hectares were lost, amounting to 1.8 million hectares of vines. In the end, phylloxera touched vineyards across Europe and the New World.
But after the devastation, how did the winemakers get rid of this pest? After trialling several different possible solutions, one stood out and it came from the same place as the louse itself – the USA. After observing the natural resistance of American vines to the insect, the way forward became clear. American vines were going to have to be used in Europe.
Grafting and reviving vineyards
The idea was not to replant all European vines with American ones, but to graft the two types together. The European vine stock, containing the characteristics so beloved in Europe, would be grafted onto the root stock of American vines. This would allow the vines to ward off the phylloxera in the soil.
This method is so effective that it is used around the world today to stop the insect devastating vineyards again. There are a few places that naturally seem resistant like in Chile where sandy soils prevent the insect getting to the roots.
The economic consequences of phylloxera for French winemakers were enormous but they are also the ones to have the last word. Determined to adapt and come back stronger, those who managed to survive the epidemic created the flourishing viticultural world we know today. The gigantic task of removing the affected vines allowed winemakers to replant them better in a way that would facilitate working the soil. It also meant they could organise the distribution of plants in their parcels more efficiently. What is more, the sharp decrease in production led to some producers using fraudulent techniques to dilute the wine they produced, and thus, increasing the amount they could sell. In response to this, the French wine industry created the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system, to ensure the quality and origin of the wines.
Phylloxera is still a threat today for the places where there are ungrafted vines, like those own by Bollinger in Champagne, but thanks to the use of American root stocks, we can enjoy wines from around the whole world.