How Phylloxera Vastatrix transformed the face of wine

“If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.” Anita Roddick, Founder of the Body Shop.

The same could be said of phylloxera in terms of punching way above its weight – this tiny, yellow root-feeding aphid has quite probably had a bigger impact on the wine industry than any other pest or disease.

Phlylloxera

Phylloxera attacks only European vinifera (grape vines) and kills them slowly but surely by attacking their roots – sucking the life out of them while exuding a poisonous juice into the wound.

It was first noted in France in 1867 when vines mysteriously sickened and died, and the bug continued at inexorable speed to infect virtually every viticulture region in the world. There was no known cure…but plenty of speculation! French reaction was slow (they were rather busy with the Suez canal, the Great Exhibition in Paris and Napoleon) but, quelle surprise, they did form a commission and a reward of 300,000 Francs was offered to the inventor of ‘the cure’.

In France alone nearly 40% of vineyards were devastated so it’s not difficult to imagine that the impact of phylloxera was major – socially, economically, locally, nationally and internationally. For a while the very existence of the wine industry in France was hanging by a thread. In all, the phylloxera episode was to last 30 years until a solution was found and the vineyards were resurrected.

Phylloxera cartoon from the magazine Punch, September 6th, 1890

It turned out that phylloxera was an unwelcome import from America, the by-product of lax controls in shipping botanical specimens and the friendly co-operation of America and French farmers in Bordeaux and Pujat (Rhone). The solution came from America too. Astonishingly, it wasn’t to bury a live toad under the vine as some bounty hunters had suggested. In a rather more scientific process, it was discovered that using century old technique vitis vinifera could be grafted on vitis aestivalis and other phylloxera- resistant American rootstock, which eventually became the established method of control.

Vine grafted onto American rootstock

Now it isn’t a serious problem as around 85% of all the world’s vineyards are estimated to be grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstock but there still isn’t a chemical which has been developed to eradicate it. There are some phylloxera free pockets – parts of Australia, China, Chile, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and some Mediterranean Islands like Crete, Cyprus and Rhodes. These areas tend to have strict controls on imports.

Amazingly, given the extent of the scourge, there are some pockets in otherwise affected areas (e.g. Bollinger, France) which have never been affected either because of soil composition or isolation.

Further Reading…

George Ordish ‘The Great Wine Blight’

Christy Campbell Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved for the World

The Great French Wine Blight

Wikipedia: Phylloxera

Popular Science Monthly – The Grape Phylloxera

Janic Robinson’s ‘Wine Course’

Tom Stevenson ‘The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia’

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