The greatest threat to winegrowing in history: Phylloxera: not your average piece of viticultural trivia. In the mid-nineteenth century, this apocalyptic disease was on the verge of destroying practically all vineyards in the world. Well, not all vineyards, just the ones that consisted of vitis vinifera(European) vines. A hellish scenario, indeed: no more Margaux, no more Montrachet, no more Malmsey, no more Clos de Mesnil, no more (ghastly underrated) Monbazillac, no more Madiran, no more Macvin du Jura (a real treat), no more marvellously magnanimous wines comprising just one letter of the western alphabet. If you ask me, why go on living? And yet, this was the precise situation facing growers throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, one that threatened to decimate over two thousand years’ worth of toil, terroir, and tradition.
But what is, exactly, phylloxera? About a millimetre in length, phylloxera is a small yellow aphid (or plant louse) capable of devastating vineyards with relentless rapidity as it feeds on the root of the vine. As it consumes the sap, the root is infected with swellings called ‘galls,’ which eventually prevents the sap from circulating, causing the infected root to die and leave the actual vine without sustenance. In human anatomical terms, think of your mouth being sewn shut so that you cannot receive nutrients. In vinous format, the vine shuts down, as its leaves turn yellow, whither, and fall. Three years later, the vine is usually dead.Indigenous to the eastern United States, the louse first appeared on European shores in 1863, when vineyards in southern England and around the mouth of the Rhône were discovered to be infected. How did it get there? The most likely scenario: it was able to survive the Atlantic crossing via the advent of steamships, perhaps underfoot of an unsuspecting passenger, one who had only recently visited an American farm (or vineyard) before boarding the ship, then visiting a vineyard on the other side of the Atlantic shortly after disembarking. Another scenario: during this same period, vast quantities of North American plants were also being transported across the Atlantic for experimentation and replanting. No doubt a little phylloxera tagged along for the ride. Either way, in centuries past, this would not have been a problem, as the phylloxera louse would not have been able to survive the multi-week journey on-board wooden sailing ships. Almost makes one think of phylloxera as the Titanic of viticultural tragedies, then.
And tragic it was. In short order, it struck Portugal in 1871, Austria in 1872, Germany and Switzerland in 1874, Spain in 1877, and Italy in 1879. In France, alone, subsequent to the widespread devastation of vineyards throughout the Rhône, Province, and the Midi, phylloxera hit Bordeaux in 1868, Burgundy in 1875, the Loire in 1878, and Alsace and Champagne in 1890. Even worse, the phylloxera menace was not just confined to Europe. In 1873, it hit California. In 1877, it appeared in Australia, hitting New South Whales and Victoria shortly thereafter. By 1885, it struck South Africa. By 1890, even New Zealand was invaded. The word’s best vines were being destroyed at an astonishing rate! What was to be done?
In the end, it was renowned French botanist Jules-Émile Planchon (1823-1888) who, in conjunction with several other persons of note, finally discovered (or confirmed) the solution, likely sometime between 1869 and 1873: grafting European vines onto phylloxera-resistant (eastern) American rootstocks. A radical solution, to be sure, and one that took several decades to fully implement. Needless to say, the cost of completely replanting most of the vineyards of Europe, alone, was enormous. Yet, to this very day, virtually all vines in Europe – the wines we hanker after from Burgundy or Bordeaux, just to name my two favourites (along with Champagne and the Rhône) – are grafted onto American rootstocks. Hard to believe how close the greatest vineyards in the world once came to complete destruction. I shudder to think how we’ll handle climate change ….