Legacy of Phylloxera
Scary fact: by the 1880s a lot of Europe’s best wine regions were almost out of business because of the scourge of Phylloxera.
Phylloxera is an extremely destructive pest that can cause significant damage to grapevines. Originally from North America, it was accidentally brought into Europe in the 19th century by avid botanists who were collecting native plant species to bring home. Next thing you know, European vineyards were being swarmed by this tiny insect and devastated by the resulting crop destruction.
The damage done by Phylloxera was significant.
The tiny, aphid-like insects would go on to kill nearly one in every two vines across Europe, leaving acres of vineyards in some of the best wine regions across Europe, such as Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy, completely desolate.
Fortunately, in 1863 researchers in the south of France stumbled across what was causing all the devastation. They realized that it was a bug native to the eastern United States called Phylloxera Vastatrix.
How Phylloxera ruins vineyards
Before the discovery, it was completely unknown what was causing the devastation. But when they realized how the infestation had started and spread, scientists began to study how Phylloxera moved and destroyed plants.
They soon realized that the aphid-like bugs fed primarily on the roots of plants. If left uncontrolled, Phylloxera would quickly cause widespread destruction to grapevines. It wreaks havoc on a vine by feeding on its root system which decreases water flow to the plant. In addition to destroying the root system, it will also harm the vine’s ability to store carbohydrates in its trunk and leaves. As a result, it can stunt or kill the entire plant.
Fighting back against Phylloxera
The realization soon came that the only way to combat Phylloxera was to graft European grapevines onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks from America. This way, the resilient vine roots of North America would protect the vulnerable European vines from the pest’s devastation.
While this method was successful at first, it wasn’t long before the Phylloxera started adapting to these new, American rootstocks. However, other methods were later developed to combat this problem, such as introducing natural predators of Phylloxera into the European vineyards, like ladybugs and nematodes.
Today, the Phylloxera problem has been much diminished, although it is still present in some areas and is occasionally still a challenge to wine growers. But thanks to years of research and hard work, the legacy of Phylloxera has shown that with enough knowledge, effort, and ingenuity, the impact of even the worst pests can be mitigated.
Up close with Phylloxera
The Phylloxera nematode is less than a millimeter long and almost invisible to the human eye. It lives underground and feeds on the vine’s roots for most of its existence. Its diminutive size makes it convenient for conveyance by equipment, footwear, and even the wind.
Importing live plants from one nation to another was fraught with danger in the 19th century, yet nobody seemed to notice. Numerous plant species, including grapevines, were traded between Europe and the Americas during this period. Phylloxera may have arrived in Europe on one of these shipments.
Leaf galls caused by phylloxera
The historic spread of Phylloxera
The phylloxera pest soon spread over the vineyards in Southern France. After its first discovery in the Rhône Valley, it became apparent that this phenomenon was on the march. It quickly spread to vineyards in Languedoc and Provence following its discovery and eventually made its way to Bordeaux.
Figure 1. Phylloxera in 1870
It did not take long for it to spread to the wine areas of Northern France. Moreover, it did not remain confined to France; by the turn of the century, most of Europe and North Africa had been infected.
Figure 2. Phylloxera in 1880
Finding the source of the widespread ailment proved to be more challenging and time-consuming than anticipated. The French government established a committee investigating potential causes. The committee quickly identified a new bug as the perpetrator. However, their findings were mostly received with suspicion. Others thought that Phylloxera was only a symptom of a core sickness in the vines themselves, and not caused by a single little bug. The bulk of the scientific world did not accept the conclusions of the first committee until 1869.
Soon afterward, treatment suggestions circulated. Inundating the vines with water proved to be a successful strategy. However, this was not practicable for many vineyards. Other winegrowers were in favor of spraying carbon disulfide gas around the vines. While this method also worked, it was slow, and the gas was very flammable, making it risky.
It was discovered that higher temperatures in sandy soils also proved unfavorable to phylloxera, and limited the damage it could cause.
However, it was the recommendation to graft American grapevine rootstock onto European grapevines that proved most fruitful in stopping this pest. Native to the eastern United States, phylloxera-resistant American vines already existed. Eventually, this concept prevailed and helped the European wine-making tradition survive.
Figure 3. Phylloxera in 1890
How did Phylloxera Impact France?
The repercussions of Phylloxera on the wine business are challenging to comprehend. It is believed that between 1863 and 1890, this pest devastated almost 40 percent of all vineyards in France.
Since the French Revolution, the amount of land used for vineyards in France has slowly grown. In 1874, it reached a peak of about 2,465,000 hectares. This is around three times the current total vineyard area. Many devastated vines were never replanted after Phylloxera. Numerous renowned wine areas shrank in size, while other minor wine regions vanished utterly.
The French wine industry also saw specific structural changes. Many vineyards before the Phylloxera were field mixes, meaning they had a disorganized collection of diverse grape varieties. The vineyards were replanted to resemble modern vineyards, with neat rows of uniform plants. Because of how grapes were spread, Phylloxera wiped out vineyards that had been planted much closer together than they are now. After being grafted, vines might be spaced farther apart and planted in neater rows. In addition, when wineries replanted their vineyards, they only replanted the varietals of grapes that were the most successful in the past. Therefore, grape varietals that were popular in the past, including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, replaced many of the obscure types. The result was a diminished genetic diversity of wine grapes used in European wine production.
To summarize, the historic spread of Phylloxera was devastating for the wine industry in France. It wiped out millions of acres of vineyards and dramatically changed the European winemaking industry. Luckily, scientists and wine growers found a solution in the form of grafting Phylloxera-resistant American rootstock onto European grapevines. To this day, France remains one of the world’s leading wine producers. However, many of the traditions and practices that were established in the aftermath of Phylloxera are still observed today.
To learn more about Phylloxera, check out our other articles on the insect’s impact in Spain, Germany, and a second, more recent outbreak in Napa Valley.
Want to read more? Try these books!
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.
Ordish, George (1972). The Great Wine Blight, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
“The Devastator: Phylloxera Vastatrix & the Remaking of the World of Wine.” 2017. GuildSomm. 2017. https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/kelli-white/posts/phylloxera-vastatrix.
Woloch, Isser (1994). The New Regime; Transformation of the French Civic Order, 1789-1820s. New York. Norton.