A Dark Period in the History of European Winemaking

There are several subjects of past columns that come to mind as I prepare to pen a new one.

One has been swirling around in my wine writer’s subconscious for several weeks. It is a tale full of intrigue, widespread destruction and a strong dose of irony. It is the dark history of the Phylloxera (Fi-LOX-eh-ra) cross-border epidemic, one that plagued much of the European vineyard plantings in the middle of the 19th century.

This week I reprise that column.

Today the wine industry across the globe is thriving, thanks to the increasing quality and quantity of wines produced around the world. However, in its 7,000-year history, there is one singular moment when the survival of a large swath of the wine industry was seriously in question.

In the mid-19th century, in a brief period of 15 years, the greatest disaster in the modern history of the wine industry took place in Western Europe, wiping out nearly two-thirds of all grapevines.

Picture This: Previously healthy vines in the south of France suddenly develop ominous symptoms. Leaves yellow and drop, roots die and grapevines wither. Growers are forced to uproot the dead, diseased plants, burning them in the vineyard fields.

The devastation quickly spreads throughout France and then into Italy, Spain and Germany. Centuries-old cultivated and refined grapevines are gone in a wisp of smoke. Producers are bankrupted, unemployment skyrockets and consumers are deprived of their life-sustaining nectar.

What caused this devastation? And what was the ultimate solution?

The Cause: A tiny aphid insect, the Phylloxera Vastatrix (“the devastator” in Latin), began infesting French grapevines in the mid-1850s. Thousands of Phylloxera invaded the roots of plants, weakening grapevines and making them susceptible to fatal diseases.

Once satiated, the Phylloxera moved on to the next feast – leaving no physical trail. Farmers were confounded, unable to identify Phylloxera as the culprit. In a vain attempt to remove the “poison” in the vineyards, farmers flooded vineyards, spread chemicals, even buried live toads under each grapevine. All to no avail.

A decade later, the cause of the devastation is identified. For years, the French had been importing American grapevine rootstock for analysis and possible hybridization. Little did they know these vines carried the Phylloxera across the ocean. They didn’t understand that, whereas American rootstock had developed a resistance to Phylloxera, the native French vines had no such tolerance. As the American rootstock was transported throughout France for experimentation, the Phylloxera was carried along. The invasion began and spread inexorably.

The Solution: In a manner worthy of an episode of CSI: Bordeaux, the source of the blight was traced to the Phylloxera carried on the American plants. The French are incensed at the crude Americans for allowing this to happen and tensions mount.

Then a solution is proposed: graft French grapevines onto the American rootstock and replant the vineyards with these hybrid plants.

Sacre bleu! What will this incongruous coupling accomplish? The uniqueness of French grape varietals will be preserved and the resistant American rootstock will save the French wine industry.

So now the French are once again incensed. The rogues that caused the problem are now bearers of the solution. Future French wines would be produced in an incestuous relationship with the inferior American vines. The French nation would have to acknowledge its gratitude for the survival of its beloved wines to the very culprits that wiped out their vineyards. This was hard to swallow.

But swallow they did. Slowly – very slowly. Nearly a half-century after the invasion of Phylloxera (and one million graftings later), the wine industry in France and across Western Europe flourished once again – but with the nagging knowledge of the American presence in the soil and soul of their vineyards.

To this day, your glass of French wine may have American roots.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.