Phylloxera: A Brief History

January 24, 2020 by French Corner Cellars

For every wine enthusiast that is even remotely familiar with the story of Phylloxera in the 1800’s, there are of course dozens that are not. With that in mind, we at French Corner Cellars have decided to present an informative yet brief overview of the events that transpired from the late 1850’s to the late 1880’s and beyond. We hope you enjoy.

Wine growers in France began to notice a blight in their vineyards sometime in the mid 1800’s, many state that it’s official start was 1858. Vines old and young alike began to wither and die, rotted and diseased beginning with their roots. The affliction spread quickly across Europe, and other countries with some 6,000,000+ acres having been wiped out in total. In France, after much argument and speculation over a decade, the Phylloxera Grape Aphid was deemed the culprit. And even within this period, entire varieties had been lost, and small wineries closed.

The delay in diagnosis lied in the habits of the insect, by the time a root had been discovered as diseased, the louse had moves on to feed on a healthier vine, giving the notion of a bacterial infection. It was only when watchdogs noticed the healthy-looking vine nearby had tiny yellow creatures on it, that the connection was made. Phylloxera spreads incredibly fast, the female of the species feeds off the roots, and as they asexually reproduce, one egg is all that’s needed to destroy entire crops. The males are wingless, not even possessing a digestive system, they simply mate and die. The females feed via a proboscis, at the same time injecting venom that breaks down the tissue of the roots to increase the flow of sap – this is ultimately fatal to the vine as its loses the ability to fight off bacteria. These swift and fatal effects gave the moniker of ‘vasterix’ or ‘The Devastator’.

While many people site France as the main example of the devastation, most of Europe was affected, even spreading to Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. After much investigation, it was found that the Louse originated in the Mississippi Valley of the United States (oddly enough, all three major European blights are attributed to the U.S.). Phylloxera has existed in North America for centuries, as such the native vines had evolved to counteract its feeding habits. North Americas native grapevines Vitis Berlandiari, Vitis Reparia, and Vitus Rupestris had adapted an extra-sticky sap that clogged the nymph’s proboscis, making it neigh-impossible to feed. The vines then form a second protective layer over the wound to prevent infections. Ultimately, it was these vines that made growing possible in the aftermath, the North American roots are grafted to European vines, so the louse’s foothold is lost. To this day it is widely debated on whether the North American roots change the flavor of the grape and wine, so much so that regulations were created, dictating where the vines are grown, and how they are classified.

As it stands, the appearance and effect of Phylloxera has forever changed winemaking the world over. Beyond changes in the way vines are planted, grown and maintained, winegrowers used the upheaval to weed out lesser vine types in favor of more hearty choices, as well as streamlining grouping. In France, the blight caused many regions to shrink as production dwindled, which led to some other areas – such as Languedoc – to grow substantially. In Bordeaux, popular grapes such as Malbec lost acreage due to difficulty grafting to the new roots, and there is the story of the Carménère grape being thought lost during that period, then popping up much later masquerading as Merlot in Chile (luckily, Bordeaux grapes were brought down a mere decade before Phylloxera hit).

Countries and areas not affected witnessed a swell of exportation, as the international wine market sought other outlets - Spain, Portugal, and South America being the most notable examples. Then there were the areas that were affected, but acted swiftly and harshly in response to the blights. Germany, and Australia are well known for their policies of pulling up and incinerating infected vines, keeping the land fallow for many years, and limiting the types of vines to be replanted, in fact, Australia has a staggering 74% of its original vines today, after Victoria had been devastated, their response was both severe and effective.

All things considered, the winemaking communities of the world took a calamity, and turned it into serendipity, leaving behind a vast landscape adorned with wines of near-infinite diversity. And with a diverse wine collection, comes the Avintage DIVA wine refrigeration line, to keep your bottles at the perfect temperature.