Paris dates back to 259 BC, when Parasii, a Celtic Tribe, settled on the banks of the Seine River. In 52 BC, the Romans took the fisherman’s village, founding a Gallo-Roman town called Lutetia. In the fourth century, the city changed its name to Paris. When the Romans came, they brought their grape vines with them, including the species Vitis Vinifera which is used to make wine today. These Vitis Vinifera grapevines were eventually brought to North America by Spanish settlers in the 1500s. The wine industry continued to develop in Europe and North America and was flourishing by the 18th century. Things continued well until 1863 in France. This is the first year the Great Blight, later identified as phylloxera, was first noticed. The great blight began to spread and spread quickly. Rot took over the vines from fruit to root. A French botanist named Jules-Emile Planchon joined politicians and winegrowers to investigate the issue in 1868. Upon inspection of the dying plants, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. That is until Jules uprooted the dying vine and revealed the problem.
The roots of the dying vine were covered in a yellow substance that was identified as root lice. They also discovered a winged version of the bug on the leaves of the diseased vine. Although they had found these small insects, they were unsure what to do about them. They had many questions about both the disease and the insect. The past disease model was thought to be caused by physiological flaws rather than external ones. So, it was first believed that the insects were not the cause but rather part of the effect of the diseased grapevines.
The insect was then identified as phylloxera, and they had come from America. Now that the disease was discovered, the French began searching for a cure. The French government offered a reward of over 300,000 francs to the first person to find a cure. Between 1874 and 1877, 600 suggestions were pitched. A rail company even offered to subsidize the shipping of a chemical with a promise to cure phylloxera to compensate for the revenue lost during the blight.
While some remedies were introduced, many were dangerous or not feasible. In 1870, an American entomologist suggested grafting French grape varieties onto American grape rootstock, which were already immune to phylloxera. After many tests, the French government and many winemakers decided this was the best way to combat the blight. By the early 1890s, many French regions were replanting their grapes with American rootstock. They had developed grafted vines that could resist phylloxera, thrive in the French soil, and still make great wine. This was not a small undertaking, as the knowledge of genetic heritability wasn’t fully understood at the time. France’s experience with phylloxera was able to provide solutions to neighboring wine-making countries, furthering the spread of the grafted vine.
This Day in Wine History
1868: A government-sanctioned committee investigated the reports of new grapevine disease and found the cause to be phylloxera.
1890s: The best-known cure for phylloxera, grafting American grape rootstock onto French grapevines, has begun spreading throughout France. This cure is still the best remedy against phylloxera and is used throughout the world today.