In the mid-1850s, one of the greatest challenges to the global wine industry was discovered. This challenge was the insect phylloxera. It nearly destroyed Europe’s vineyards and forever changed how grape vines were planted.
Phylloxera is a tiny aphid-like insect that spends the majority of its life cycle in the soil. It feeds on the roots of plants, especially grape vines. When phylloxera begins to eat the grape vine’s roots, it makes the vine sick and eventually kills it.
Phylloxera originated in the Eastern United States, but its existence was unknown. The Eastern United States is home to different native grape varieties, but all of these grapes possess thick-skinned roots, making them immune to the effects of phylloxera. This insect went unknown until it was transported to France in the 1860s. No one is sure how phylloxera traveled from the United States to France, but it is believed the pest made the trip with some American plants or raw wood imported into France.
Unfortunately for the wine industry, the grape species Vitis vinifera, which is used to make almost all the wine in the world, possesses thin-skinned roots. So once phylloxera made the trip to Europe, it was essentially welcomed with an all-you-can-eat buffet of grapevine roots. The first region to notice phylloxera was Southern Rhône in France. From there, it quickly began spreading into Languedoc in Southern France, then to Provence and Bordeaux by 1870. At first, wine growers were stumped. They had no idea why their vines were getting sick and dying. But once it became clear that the mysterious illness was spreading, the French government launched an investigation. They assigned three scientists to investigate what was causing the sickness. It didn’t take long for the investigation to turn up with some answers; they quickly noticed the tiny bugs gathered on the roots of the sick and dying vines and named them as the cause.
The Race for the Phylloxera Cure
As different scientists and winegrowers squabbled over the investigation’s findings, the next issue began. But this is where the issues began. First, many didn’t believe that an aphid-like bug could be responsible for such widespread devastation; some even suggested that phylloxera was a symptom of the disease rather than the cause. No one knew how to stop it from spreading. The French government, now desperate for a cure, offered a monetary reward for anyone who could devise a solution to phylloxera. At this point, phylloxera had gone through the majority of the wine regions in Southern France, leaving a wake of devastation behind. Out of Bordeaux’s 170,000 hectares of vines, 100,000 had been affected. By this point, phylloxera had also started spreading beyond France and entering other countries.
A few different solutions were put forward with varying success. The first was to flood the vineyard and leave it flooded for at least 40 days. While this did seem to work, it was only feasible for a small number of vineyards. The next solution was to inject carbon disulfide into the vineyard’s soils. This, too, was effective, although dangerous and extremely expensive. Finally, the best solution was discovered; Vitis vinifera was grafted onto native grapevine rootstock from America. This gave the Vitis vinifera vines immunity to phylloxera without impacting the quality of the grapes.
Once the solution was finally discovered, it would still take many years and decades to replant all of the vineyards in Europe and the world. Below is a timeline of phylloxera’s devastation to Europe and the rest of the world’s vineyards, which will allow you to see how the insect spread and was eventually contained.
When enthusiastic botanists in Victorian England gathered samples of American vines in the 1850s, Phylloxera was brought to Europe. The native grape species in North America are at least partially resistant to phylloxera because […]
In the southern Rhône area of France, the first vines started to mysteriously decay in 1863. Rapid continental spread was experienced by the issue. Only 23.4 million hectolitres of wine were produced in France […]