The Great French Blight
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 most wine today. These Vitis Vinifera grapevines eventually were brought to North America by Spanish settlers in the 1500s. The wine industry continued to develop in Europe and North America, and by the 18th century was flourishing. 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. Jules and a few committee members visited vineyards with dying vines; upon inspection of the dying plant nothing seemed out of the ordinary. However, once Jules uprooted the dying vine the problem was revealed.
The roots of the dying vine were covered in yellow substance that was identified as a 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 only freeloaders of the diseased grapevines.
It was then discovered that the insects were phylloxera, and they had come from America. Now that the disease was discovered, the French began searching for a cure. The French government offered 300,000 francs to the first person to find a remedy. Between 1874 and 1877, 600 suggestions were pitched. A rail company even offered to subsidize the shipping of a chemical with 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, and American entomologist suggested grafting French grape varieties onto American grape rootstock, that was 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 yet. France’s experience with phylloxera was able to provide solutions to neighboring wine making countries, furthering the spread of the grafted vine.
Gadye, L. (2015, Mar 17). How The Great French Wine Blight Changed Grapes Forever. Retrieved from Gizmodo: https://gizmodo.com/how-the-great-french-wine-blight-changed-grapes-forever-1691598233
History of Paris. (n.d.). Retrieved from Civitatis Paris: https://www.introducingparis.com/history#:~:text=In%2052%20BC%2C%20the%20fishermen,Paris%20during%20the%20fourth%20century.