A Deep Dive into the Economic Impact of Phylloxera in France

The devastating epidemic of Phylloxera in Southern France had long-term economic consequences for the grape producers and the overall wine industry of the region. Between 1863 and 1890, Phylloxera, a virus that feeds on the roots of grape plants, caused a considerable loss of income in France’s wine-producing regions.

It was estimated that Phylloxera destroyed about 40% of the country’s vineyards. The epidemic affected different parts of French vineyards for different periods of time as the insects migrated slowly from the southern coast to the rest of the country[1]. This article aims to evaluate the economic impacts of Phylloxera on the wine-producing areas it destroyed.

Phylloxera and the French Wine Industry

For most of the nineteenth century, wine was a major part of France’s agricultural production and overall economy. When Phylloxera was first detected in 1863, wine-producing grapes were France’s second-largest crop after wheat. Wine products account for around one-sixth of the country’s overall agricultural production. At that time, as many as 79 vineries produced wine. Among these, only 40 contributed more than 15 percent of agricultural production.

The Phylloxera parasite eats the roots of grape plants and is related to aphids that prey on grape vines. The affected grape plant will eventually wither and die directly from this parasite, causing dried-out leaves and fewer fruits despite optimal weather and better care. The parasite immigrated from the United States to the coastal areas of Europe and finally made its way to France in the early 1860s.

It is believed that they may have arrived on the European coast in the packing wood; they were more likely sent with a shipment of American vines. Some wine historians are of the opinion that they made the journey in the wood used for packing[2].

Initially, two distinct wine-producing regions of France were infested with the alien parasite. In 1863, wine growers in the southern coastal regions near the mouth of the Rhône noticed the effects of the parasite, and there are several recorded instances from 1866–67.

The parasite was limited to the coastal areas during the first two years. However, in 1869, Bordeaux’s west coastal areas detected cases of the invasive parasite, and by then, it had spread to other parts of the region. The following figure shows the map depicting the initial invasion of the parasite and spread starting with these two locations: This was a gradual process that began in the southern areas and progressed to the northern regions and, ultimately, the coast. They first came in from the southwest, then from the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, and ultimately from the Loire valley, north of the region’s borders[3].

Phylloxera in France, A Deep Dive into the Economic Impact of Phylloxera in France

Phylloxera in France, A Deep Dive into the Economic Impact of Phylloxera in France

Figure 1. Phylloxera in 1870

Since the phylloxera virus had spread across France’s southern region and 25 wine-producing establishments by 1878, it had a devastating impact on the country’s overall wine-making industry. From south France, the virus made its way into the Paris suburbs around the year 1885[4].

Since the initial attack, none could find out why the vines were withering and how to cure the trees. When the disease’s symptoms were correctly recognized, wine farmers had already faced destruction from the phylloxera insect and the bug spread.

At the peak of plundering, two southern departments agreed to form a committee to analyze the pandemic and find a cure for it. As a result, in 1868, a group of scientists studying the incidence of dead vines discovered phylloxera insects. A team of experts detected vine roots infested with the insects. These insects were found to be the cause of the incident[5].

Phylloxera in France, A Deep Dive into the Economic Impact of Phylloxera in France

Figure 2. Phylloxera in 1880

After diagnosing the disease, several chemicals were developed to handle the virus. However, the most successful cure was developed in the late 1880s, following many attempts, including flooding and treatment with Carbon Bisulfide. For the successful technique, wine producers had to graft pest-resistant American roots onto European grape trees. The cure discovered in France in 1888 led to the identification of 431 different kinds of American grapes and the soil types most suited to their grape gardens. The cure in the 1890s facilitated the recovery and permitted a strong start. Most vineyards initially planted with European grapes were later replaced with grafted plants.

Phylloxera in France, A Deep Dive into the Economic Impact of Phylloxera in France

Figure 3. Phylloxera in 1880 

The Economic Impacts of the Crisis

The figure below shows an illustrated chronology of French wine-making from the years 1850 to 1908. The figure shows that there was decreased wine production in the French region as mildew was already prevalent in the vineyards when Phylloxera arrived. Production increased until 1877, after a brief period of significant recovery in 1855–1859. However, more than half of wine-producing areas were thought to have been wiped off by the phylloxera catastrophe. As important as it is to remember, wine output grew steadily up until 1877[6].

It has been recorded that the unaffected French regions produced an increasing amount of wine during the pandemic. The overall French wine industry was in decline until 1890. Slow grafting of French trees with American roots began in 1890, a sign that the healing process was starting to take hold.

Phylloxera in France, A Deep Dive into the Economic Impact of Phylloxera in France

Figure 4. Wine Production and Wine Price 

On the other hand, Phylloxera had a considerable influence on wine output. The historical information on wine production, it may establish the year in which phylloxera aphids were first spotted in the region. Even after the virus spread, production rose (or remained constant) in most areas for many more years.

Between 1863 and 1890, Phylloxera was responsible for destroying 40% of France’s vineyards. In 1863, one-sixth of France’s agricultural revenue was earned by wine before the global financial crisis. Most of France’s wine was produced in a limited handful of highly specialized wine-producing areas. The phylloxera outbreak significantly impacted the income of those who lived in these areas and overall French agricultural revenue [7].

Because there are no consistent revenue numbers for the period in question, the agricultural income in these regions is estimated to have fallen between 16% and 22% during the crisis. Before the financial crisis, 67% of the people resided in rural areas of this country (and 57 percent were living directly from agriculture income). Phylloxera had a particular influence on different regions at different periods since the insects traveled slowly from the southern coast of France to the rest of France[8].

ON THIS DAY

November 5, 1902: George Hussmann passed away[9] in Napa, California. Scientific experts from across the globe had been summoned to study the issue, including him and Charles V. Riley. Phylloxera was found to be infesting the area.

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REFERENCES

[1] Woloch, Isser (1994). The New Regime; Transformation of the French Civic Order, 1789-1820s. New York. Norton.

[2] Abhijit V. Banerjee et al., “Long Run Health Impacts of Income Shocks: Wine and Phylloxera in 19th Century France,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2007, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.960875.

[3] Abhijit V. Banerjee et al., “Long Run Health Impacts of Income Shocks: Wine and Phylloxera in 19th Century France,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2007, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.960875.

[4] Abhijit V. Banerjee et al., “Long Run Health Impacts of Income Shocks: Wine and Phylloxera in 19th Century France,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2007, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.960875.

[5] Abhijit V. Banerjee et al., “Long Run Health Impacts of Income Shocks: Wine and Phylloxera in 19th Century France,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2007, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.960875.

[6] Abhijit V. Banerjee et al., “Long Run Health Impacts of Income Shocks: Wine and Phylloxera in 19th Century France,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2007, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.960875.

[7] Abhijit V. Banerjee et al., “Long Run Health Impacts of Income Shocks: Wine and Phylloxera in 19th Century France,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2007, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.960875.

[8] Abhijit V. Banerjee et al., “Long Run Health Impacts of Income Shocks: Wine and Phylloxera in 19th Century France,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2007, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.960875.

[9] Ordish, George (1972). The Great Wine Blight, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

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