Phylloxera: Why all French wine might really be American

by Steve Martindale

France is rightly famous for its wine industry and produces some of the most sought-after vintages in the world. Wine has formed an important part of this country’s culture and economy for centuries, but 150 years ago a tiny American aphid brought the industry to its knees and very nearly signalled the end of French wine.

Who ‘invented’ wine is a topic of heated debate, with a number of countries laying claim. As early as 7,000 BC, ancient tribes from the Yellow River Valley of China were drinking a fermented rice/honey/fruit wine which they stored in earthenware jars, but this would not be recognisable as wine as we know it today. Between 6,000 and 5,000 BC, there is increasing evidence of wine production in Georgia, then Armenia and Iran.

As their empire grew, it is the Phoenicians who are credited with the westward spread of vineyards through the city states along the southern coast of the Mediterranean. Two recently discovered Phoenician shipwrecks from 750 BC were found to contain a cargo of wine that was still intact. It was then the Romans who brought wine to Western Europe as their empire spread north, planting vineyards near garrison towns so the drink could be produced locally rather than shipped over long distances.

The French climate and terroir proved to be perfect for vineyards and in medieval France, the Roman Catholic Church supported wine production because the clergy required it for the Mass and monks took over the role, ageing it in caves; an industry had been born. By the early 19th century, France had garnered a reputation as one of the world’s greatest producers of wine.

In much the same way as their Roman forebears, European colonialists brought their vines with them when they crossed the Atlantic to settle in the Americas. They took their prized vitis vinifera vines, a European species of wine grape, which was first planted in North America by French settlers in the 1600s. Unfortunately, vitis vinifera was not a happy traveler and most vines succumbed to local pests and pathogens. Undeterred, the early settlers began experimenting with local grape species, such as vitis riparia and vitis rotundifolia, plants which thrived in their native soil, but produced wines that could not compare to the great wines of Europe.

The solution was to graft European vines onto the roots of native American species, ensuring a good-quality wine, while protecting the plants from the unknown diseases in the soil.

The wine industries thrived on both sides of the Atlantic until the advent of steam drastically cut the time it took to cross the ocean. This new technology resulted in the rapid establishment of experimental vineyards full of both American and hybrid vines all across France. At the time, very few people gave much thought to the potential dangers of such unregulated trade and it was this oversight that would set off a biological chain reaction that would forever change how grapes would be grown around the world.

The first signs of trouble came in 1863 at a small vineyard in the village of Pujaut in the Gard department of southern France. A local Rhône Valley winemaker had imported and planted a number of American vines into his walled garden and the following year nearby vines started to die from a mysterious illness. Along with his American vines, the farmer had also unwittingly brought over a number of tiny passengers.

The leaves of the infected vines turned yellow, then brown and the rootstock itself finally succumbed. When dug up, nothing could be detected except a fungal growth in some instances. It was a mystery. In the space of a few short seasons, entire vineyards collapsed, leaving many families struggling to make ends meet. The blight had begun.

It would take almost five years for the source of the disease to be found, by which time there had already been widespread damage. The breakthrough was made by a pharmacist named Jules-Émile Planchon, who had joined a commission of politicians and winegrowers to investigate the looming national disaster. Planchon visited a sick vineyard in southern France, near Montpellier where the team initially dug up several sickly vines, but, apart from their apparent disease, saw nothing that looked amiss.

The breakthrough came when a healthy vine was uprooted by chance and inspected, revealing a grotesque spectacle, which Planchon described as follows: “Loupes were trained with care upon the roots of uprooted vines: but there was no rot, no trace of cryptogams; but suddenly under the magnifying lens of the instrument appeared an insect, a plant louse of yellowish colour, tight on the wood, sucking the sap. One looked more attentively; it is not one, it is not ten, but hundreds, thousands of the lice that one perceived, all in various stages of development. They are everywhere…!”

Although Planchon assumed he had identified the culprit, a number of hurdles remained. Experts cast doubts, questioning why the insects were not on the dead vine roots. Snobbery also played its part: southern France had a reputation for producing lower quality wines and vignerons from the north of France argued that the insects were simply preying on inferior, already weakened vines. The presence of the insects was a symptom of weak vines, not the cause.

Fortunately, Planchon persevered and published his findings, suspecting that the pest may in some way be linked to an American species of aphid, Phylloxera. Then, a respected entomologist from Missouri, C.V. Riley, read Planchon’s descriptions in 1870 and realised that these insects were indeed American phylloxera. This was despite the fact that the phylloxera Riley knew preferred to live on the leaves of American grape vines, whereas those found by Planchon had been found only on the roots of European varieties.

Further experiments and studies would confirm that the insects were indeed the same, but simply preferred American leaves and European roots. With the enemy identified, the French wine industry set itself on a war footing and the government offered a 300,000 Franc reward for anyone that could invent an insecticide that would kill the invasive aphids. Flooding was found to work, but was prohibitively expensive and many winemakers turned to toxic chemicals such as carbon disulphide, which did kill the phylloxera, but also often killed the vines along with them!

With all efforts to eradicate the insects failing, many vineyards surreptitiously planted American phylloxera-resistant vines, just so that they had something to sell each year to keep their businesses afloat. Eventually, by the early 1890s and with the industry on its knees, it was generally accepted that the fight against the insects had failed and that the only long-term solution was to replace the entire country’s vines with phylloxera-resistant varieties.

The industry was divided over its future: grafting local species onto American roots; or developing hybrid strains that were resistant to the aphids. Ultimately, both solutions were found and before long, production was back to pre-crisis levels. Hybrid vines would come to be associated with lower quality wines and they were eventually banned in France, a move that was also adopted across the EU in 1979.

Today, nearly all the French wine you drink comes from vines grafted onto American roots, but not quite all. For reasons that remain unclear to this day, a few, rare French vineyards somehow escaped phylloxera’s wrath, and wine from these vineyards is highly prized. The biological basis for their evasion is a complete mystery and as the owner of one of these vineyards explained in 2006, “we have no scientific reason that I know of for why we don’t have phylloxera… we might not be able to produce a single bottle next year”.

The hard lessons learned by France would form the blueprint for dealing with phylloxera, which gradually made its way round the world, first travelling east through Europe to Croatia and Greece and ultimately reaching as far as Australia and New Zealand. The only major wine producer that has completely evaded phylloxera is Chile, possibly because the country is surrounded by high mountains.

Although French winemakers must run the annual gauntlet of late frosts, drought and hail storms, it is the dark cloud of devastating blight that still keeps many awake at night.

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