An Evaluation of Phylloxera’s Impact in Spain

While grape Phylloxera proved to be an ecological and financial disaster for Europe’s winemaking industry, its influence eventually led to the beginning of a new era of vineyards in the region. The global Phylloxera outbreak was a whole new event for the entire world.

The Spanish Advantage

First, Spain benefited from France’s calamity due to the countries’ proximity. Initially found in France during the 1840s, Oidium (a phytopathogenic fungus)  prompted France to seek out wine shops in Spain. Consequently, a surge of viticultural growth was observed across many significant ports in Spain, such as Alicante, because Oidium hit many vineyards soon before the creation of Europe’s colossal rail system[1].

Despite Phylloxera spreading over Spain, wine-producing regions in the country’s center were able to adapt to the new situation. As a result, between 1860 and 1888, Spain’s grape-growing regions had grown by over 40% throughout the nation. After a trade agreement was established between the two countries in 1877, Spanish wine could enter France without any issues.

Due to exponential winemaking growth, Spain surpassed France as the world’s leading wine exporter, although France remained the country’s most significant client. Even though bulk wine received the most attention, several noteworthy developments occurred. At the time of Luciano Marqués de Murrieta and Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga’s studies at the University of Rioja in the late 1850s, the region had already been heavily influenced by Bordeaux[2].

The Incredible Fall

Two significant factors conspired to slow down Spain’s rapid economic development in the 19th century. Beginning with the devastating impact on Spain’s vineyards that Phylloxera had from the late 1880s to the outbreak of World War I, around a third of Spain’s vines were destroyed. Hence, unprecedented devastation took place between 1888 and 1914. For example, the Priorat region saw its vineyards decline from 5,000 to 600 hectares between 1891 and 1896. Similarly, Navarra lost 99% of its grapes over the same period. The vineyards in these two regions suffered heavy losses[3].

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Figure 1. The spread of the grape Phylloxera plague in Europe, 1868–1920.

Wine production in France started to surge in the 1890s, which proved to be a massive setback for the United States imports. Moreover, France aggressively raised its tariffs on Spanish wine in 1892. Consequently, it created an enormous impact on the Spanish economy, and a substantial region of grape land was destroyed[4].

Economic Impacts on Spain

Prior to the First World War, the environmental and economic effects on grape owners and operators were directly influenced by globalization. As part of a biohazardous trade known as the “Columbian biological exchange,” the insect (Phylloxera) responsible for France’s 1863 grape plague had shifted from the United States.

The blight had destroyed every European grapevine before the turn of the 19th Century. To help Europe’s dwindling wine production and exports recover from the Phylloxera bug, a second “Columbian trade” was required, this time in the shape of American varieties of vines. As a result, new vineyards were grafted onto the rootstocks of ancient European vines to ensure that they would be immune to the plague and retain the taste of traditional wine. Even though the global agriculture market has recently become more interconnected and characterized by solid rivalry, this enormous replanting was necessary for the industry’s overall growth[5].

Impact of the Fall of the French Wine Industry on Spain

Historians consider Grape Phylloxera a natural experiment; it could be studied how a rapid ecological shock affects economic output in this natural disaster. In the 1890s, the disease spread across Europe from southern France, decimating wine-producing regions. Before the virus could spread to other neighboring countries, new vines were already planted to replace the Spanish wines[6].

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Figure 2. The wine was produced in France, and the wine price in Barcelona, 1870–1914.

It can be observed that the wine business boomed and then collapsed between 1870 and 1900 by the rise and fall in the comparative prices of wine to wheat. Vintners’ trip into the global agricultural crisis of the early 1900s was set in motion by the volatile economic environment, characterized by rising unit costs and a sense of sociopolitical unrest[7].

Case Study: Catalan Viticulture before and after the Crisis

During and after the Phylloxera outbreak, what happened in the Spanish region of Catalonia? Catalonia’s provinces had reacted differently to the swine fever in the 1860s and 1880s and the destruction of all vines in Catalonia’s provinces. Two important provinces, Barcelona and Tarragona, did not grow many new vines after the French grapes were destroyed. These vineyards were specialized in the 17th century. An increase of 16% and 15% was observed in the grape-growing acreage between 1860 and 1885, respectively. Before the epidemic, the same area of grape land was replaced by new vines. Compared to 1860, there were 6% more grape-planted hectares in Barcelona in 1935, while in Tarragona, it was less than 1%[8].

Spain, An Evaluation of Phylloxera’s Impact in Spain

Figure 3. Land under vineyards in the four provinces of Catalonia, 1860–1935 (hectares)

Only a third of Catalonia’s vines were planted in the other two provinces in 1860, and their grape varieties evolved in distinct ways. In 1878, the French plague first invaded the bordering Spanish province of Girona. Since the grapevines were dying, there was little time to observe a boom. As a result, one-third of the 1860 acres of vineyards were replanted. To compensate for the decline in French production and exports, the area of Lleida planted with pre-Phylloxera grapes practically doubled, and the most significant number of plantations were established in this region. Subsequently, fewer than half of the vineyards in Lleida—affected by the Phylloxera plague since its emergence in 1860—could be restored using resistant varieties[9].

Spain, An Evaluation of Phylloxera’s Impact in Spain

Figure 4. Five-year mean wine production in the four provinces in Catalonia in Spain, 1890–1934 (hectoliters of grape juice)

Winemakers in Barcelona’s province primarily contributed to developing innovative techniques for harvesting new grape varieties. Following the grape Phylloxera pandemic, increased use of chemical fertilizers and manure led to improved grape juice production that was greater than the region of new plants planted. Compared to the wine production between 1890 and 1894, the 1930–1934 period had a mean annual increase of 33%, while grapevine hectares increased by 28%. More than the simple reintroduction of a previous regime was required to restore grape specialization in the area around Barcelona after the Phylloxera epidemic. Around 1890, the wine industry and grape growers in Catalonia saw a significant improvement in the region’s wine output. They aimed to supply the growing demand for Mediterranean agricultural products in North Europe and North America[10].

Read: History of Phylloxera in Wine Timeline

This Day in Wine History

April 27, 1878: The Phylloxera outbreak arrived in Spain for the first time. There were three prominent entry points for Phylloxera into the Iberian Peninsula: Porto, Malaga, and Gerona[11].

References

[1] Marc Badia-Miró et al., “THE GRAPE PHYLLOXERA PLAGUE as a NATURAL EXPERIMENT: THE UPKEEP of VINEYARDS in CATALONIA (SPAIN), 1858-1935,” Australian Economic History Review 50, no. 1 (March 2010): 39–61

[2] “Measuring Phylloxera’s Impact on the World of Wine,” SevenFifty Daily, January 30, 2018,

[3] Marc Badia-Miró et al., “THE GRAPE PHYLLOXERA PLAGUE as a NATURAL EXPERIMENT: THE UPKEEP of VINEYARDS in CATALONIA (SPAIN), 1858-1935,” Australian Economic History Review 50, no. 1 (March 2010): 39–61, https://doi.org/.

[4] Paula Stonerod and Bernadine Strik, “Hot-Water Dipping Eradicates Phylloxera from Grape Nursery Stock,” HortTechnology 6, no. 4 (October 1996): 381–83

[5] Paula Stonerod and Bernadine Strik, “Hot-Water Dipping Eradicates Phylloxera from Grape Nursery Stock,” HortTechnology 6, no. 4 (October 1996): 381–83

[6] Marc Badia-Miró et al., “THE GRAPE PHYLLOXERA PLAGUE as a NATURAL EXPERIMENT: THE UPKEEP of VINEYARDS in CATALONIA (SPAIN), 1858-1935,” Australian Economic History Review 50, no. 1 (March 2010): 39–61, https://doi.org/.

[7] Paula Stonerod and Bernadine Strik, “Hot-Water Dipping Eradicates Phylloxera from Grape Nursery Stock,” HortTechnology 6, no. 4 (October 1996): 381–83, https://doi.org/.

[8] Marc Badia-Miró et al., “THE GRAPE PHYLLOXERA PLAGUE as a NATURAL EXPERIMENT: THE UPKEEP of VINEYARDS in CATALONIA (SPAIN), 1858-1935,” Australian Economic History Review 50, no. 1 (March 2010): 39–61, https://doi.org/.

[9] Marc Badia-Miró et al., “THE GRAPE PHYLLOXERA PLAGUE as a NATURAL EXPERIMENT: THE UPKEEP of VINEYARDS in CATALONIA (SPAIN), 1858-1935,” Australian Economic History Review 50, no. 1 (March 2010): 39–61, https://doi.org/.

[10] Marc Badia-Miró et al., “THE GRAPE PHYLLOXERA PLAGUE as a NATURAL EXPERIMENT: THE UPKEEP of VINEYARDS in CATALONIA (SPAIN), 1858-1935,” Australian Economic History Review 50, no. 1 (March 2010): 39–61, https://doi.org/.

[11] Paula Stonerod and Bernadine Strik, “Hot-Water Dipping Eradicates Phylloxera from Grape Nursery Stock,” HortTechnology 6, no. 4 (October 1996): 381–83, https://doi.org/.

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