An tiny insect called phylloxera, originating from Eastern North America is the greatest known pest of grapevines. Also known as Daktulosphaera vitifoliae or Phylloxera vitifoliae, also identified as Phylloxera vastatrix in France and is a member of the insect family Phylloxeridae in the family Hemiptera. Phylloxera is cecidogenic and infests the roots and leaves of the vitis species (gall-forming). The grape phylloxera radicole (root-galling), which causes nodosities on nonlignified roots and tuberosities on older lignified roots, is especially dangerous to Vitis vinifera. Within 4–7 years of infestation, these nodosities and tuberosities reduce yield, reduce leaf surface area, and even cause vine death. Being a significant topic in the wine history, this post highlights some of the key historical events and incidents involving the phylloxera epidemic.
In 1850s: During this period many plants, including grapevines were imported and exported between the United States and Europe. It is thought that phylloxera arrived in Europe through one of these importations.
In 1860s: During this period, phylloxera was first discovered in Europe. The first place it was found was in the Southern Rhône Valley in France. Winemakers first noticed grapes starting to wilt and die for no apparent reason. However, it wasn’t until 1868 that a commission of experts confirmed the existence of phylloxera in dead roots of grapevines. At the time, the insect was known as Phylloxera vastatrix. The insect soon began to spread throughout the vineyards of Southern France. By 1869 the insect was reported in a vineyard in Bordeaux. The insect eventually spread throughout all of France’s wine regions, killing an estimated 40% of all French vines. This caused a significant economic shock in a country heavily dependent on agriculture.
In 1866: The Phylloxera insect reached Cape Town, South Africa. The phylloxera outbreak would leave a trail of extensive damage that would require more than 20 years to heal. It took place in the Western Cape and Northern Cape’s Orange River Valley.
In 1868: This year marked the entry of phylloxera in Vienna, Austria. A large outbreak occurred in 1868 in Klosterneuburg, a city adjacent to Vienna, Austria. Phylloxera then spread down the Danube river channel, initially to the nearby Austrian viticultural districts of Lower Austria and Burgenland, and subsequently to modern-day Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary.
In 1869: In this year, a suggestion was made by Lichtenstein that the “vine louse” responsible for Phylloxera in France came from America. Pemphigus vitifoliae was the name given by American entomologist Asa Fitch to the “vine louse” he found in 1855; Lichtenstein contended that this was the French insect. These suggestions, however, were met with some confusion. Unlike American grape lice, which were known to only infest a vine’s leaves, French grape lice were known to only infest a vine’s roots.
In 1871: Farmers in France began grafting European vines onto American grapevine rootstock. Grapes native to the Eastern United States were already resistant to phylloxera and immune to the effects. At first a few farmers tried to plant American grapevines in France, however the quality of grapes and wine they produced was much lower than the European grapes. So most French farmers were resistant to planting the American grapes, despite offers to import American vines. Finally, the idea was put forth to graft the European vines onto the rootstock of the American vines. This was recognized as the best remedy for phylloxera and now most of the world grapevines are grafted.
In 1873: The first case of phylloxera in Sonoma found in Agoston Haraszthy’s Sonoma vineyard at Buena Vista. The bug initially crept slowly through the vineyard grounds, but by the 1890s it had intensified its assault. In the Napa Valley, there were more than 20,000 acres of vineyards, but by 1900, there were only approximately 3,000 left. In response, the California State Legislature created an inquiry commission and requested the creation of a viticulture department at the University of California.
In 1877: The first case of Phylloxera was reported in Australia. In Australia, Phylloxera made its first appearance at Geelong in 1877. As it proceeded north, it destroyed the industry and its vines. It was found in Queensland in 1910 and New South Wales in 1884. After implementing a prohibition on the transport of vine material in 1874, South Australia was spared the plague. Additionally unaffected were Western Australia and Tasmania.
In 1878: The first case of Phylloxera was reported in Spain in Malaga. From this entry point, the pandemic spread to other parts of the country gradually.
In 1878: This same year also saw the spread of phylloxera into Argentina. Although other locations of the world saw 90 percent of their vineyards destroyed, Argentina was unexpectedly unscathed by the vine-root devouring louse. Although phylloxera was first identified in Argentina in 1878, it did not appear to thrive in the soils close to Mendoza.
In 1875: The San Isidro Agricultural Institute (IASI), in Barcelona, and some individuals like Joan Miret questioned how to deal with the epidemic (4 or 5 years prior to its invasion). In the Eastern Pyrenees, Joan Miret recommended building a “sanitary belt” (firebreak) (from the coast to Figueras). This resulted in the destruction of Alto Ampurdán’s vineyards. The Spanish Anti-Philoxeric Congress received the proposal from the IASI, which was then accepted in the Cortes on July 30, 1878.
In 1879: Phylloxera was first discovered in the vines close to the Monastery of San Quirze de Colera (Rabós) in Catalonia. The Antiphyloxera Brigades (headed by Joan Miret) were formed to create the “sanitary belt” after phylloxera had already spread to Spain. The winegrowers, however, violently rejected them, and they were able to put an end to the brigade’s activities.
In 1880-1881: Phylloxera reached the Bajo Ampurdán in Spain. It then traveled through Tordera, and entered the Barcelona province in 1882. By 1883, it expanded to the Maresme wine-growing region. In order to build a new “sanitary cordon,” the Provincial Antiphyloxeric Commission was established in Barcelona at this time. However, a rebellion stopped and blocked it.
In 1880s: The French Phylloxera Epidemic was resolved using Planchon’s Theory. Two French wine producers, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, put forth the concept that the issue would be solved if vinifera vines could be grafted with the aphid-resistant American vines. Later, Charles Valentine Riley, the state entomologist of Missouri, confirmed Planchon’s theory. Thomas Volney Munson provided Texan rootstocks for the purpose of grafting.
In 1884: The early project of planting European grapes in Japan was affected by the Phylloxera epidemic. In Kofu, Yamanashi, Hironori Yamada and Norihisa Takuma attempted to create wine for the first time in 1875, mostly utilizing equipment for sake brewing.
In 1877, the newly founded winery Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoshu in Katsunuma, Yamanashi, dispatched Masanari Takano and Ryuken Tsuchiya to Troyes in the Champagne region of France to learn viticulture and wine production techniques. European grape varieties were the focus of early Japanese efforts, but the initiative was all but destroyed in 1884 when Phylloxera spread through the imported root stock.
In 1885: Phylloxera cases were first reported in New Zealand. When the phylloxera insect was discovered in New Zealand for the first time in 1885, its identity was unclear. When it began to spread and was discovered in Whangrei vineyards in 1890, the minister of lands contacted French and other European governments to learn more about the tactics they had used to treat the disease.
In 1890s: About 70% of the grapevines in the Napa Valley were destroyed by phylloxera. It took over 100 years for the Napa Valley wine sector to rebound. Phylloxera persisted in Napa Valley from 1900 to 1925. Many farmers began growing prunes and walnuts to supplement their income.
In 1891: The first case of phylloxera was reported in Italy. Although Sicily and Calabria were severely affected, the first occurrence of phylloxera in Italy was found near to Lake Como. The pest was originally identified in Perugia in 1891, moved to Gubbio by 1899, but did not spread farther. It reappeared on the Lago Trasimeno shores in 1916, and it wasn’t until 1933 that it spread to Foligno and Montefalco. The slow spread in Italy was facilitated by the indigenous custom of wrapping grapevines around trees and blending crops with various species.
In 1899: Phylloxera reached Rioja. The Provincial Commission for the Defense against Phylloxera, one of the earliest in Spain, was created in 1878. A measure of the utmost significance has been agreed upon to stop the ravages of evil should it unavoidably arise, according to a report made by the aforementioned commission to the General Director of Public Instruction, Agriculture, and Industries on November 30th of the same year. This led to the development of three phylloxera-resistant vine seed nurseries, each in the Rioja Alta, Media, and Baja regions.
To Learn More, Read the Articles/Books Below:
Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine First Edition. (2011). by George D. Gale. Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Dying-Vine-Phylloxera-Transformed-Wine/dp/0520265483
Phylloxera: How Wine was Saved for the World Paperback. (December 27, 2004). by Christy Campbell. Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Phylloxera-How-Wine-Saved-World/dp/0007115369