Great French Wine Blight
Historically, the most damaging obstacle that wine and grape vines have been faced with is Phylloxera, hitting the plants and economy hard. While the majority of the wine world has been hit with this epidemic at some point, France was debatably hit the hardest. Here is the story of the Great French Wine Blight:
In the mid 1800s American vines were being transported to Europe without thought given to the idea of possible pest transfer. The Phylloxera was North American and it is debated how it reached Europe, many attributing the invention of steamships as the primary culprit. Steamships were faster than earlier forms of transportation thus giving the pests an increased chance of survival.
Many wine growers started to speak of an unknown disease “consuming” their crop. A vine at the centre of their vineyard would sicken with a yellowing of their leaves and within the next couple of years this would spread outward, with the leaves turning red, drying out and dropping. Little fruit would bear and any that did was said to be of poor quality, watery, acidic and with little to no bouquet.
In 1868 when viticulturalist Professor Planchon dug up a variety of healthy, dying and dead vines, he found the tiny yellow insects clinging to the vines of the dying vines.
The ways in which the Phylloxera attacked the vinifera (common grape variety) was much different in Europe then it had previously done in North America. While they were found both above and below ground and reproducing sexual and non sexually in North America, there was an almost complete lack of sexual reproduction on the European vinifera. This made them less recognizable and it wasn’t until 1870 when it was announced that they were indeed the cause of this blight.
At this point, European wine growers took one of two approaches in attempt to solve their problem. The “chemists” wanted to continue using chemicals and insecticide treatments, while flooding their crop with water. They rejected the alternative solution whereby the vinifera vines were combined through grafting with the aphid resistant American vinifera vines. The second group of wine growers were known as the “Americanists” or “wood merchants.”
Success by means of the grafting of the “Americanists” was demonstrated in the late 1870s and 1880s. This began the emergence of the reconstitution of virtually all the vineyards of France. Proven to be the solution, the grafting of vinifera onto the Phylloxera resistant American roots was coined as “reconstitution” by the French.
Over a 15 year period, 40% of French vineyards were hit and devastated. This had a tremendous effect on the French economy, at an estimated 10 billion Francs lost. Many businesses went under, people migrated to America and Algiers and for those who stayed around to work in the wine industry, suffered with their wages cut in half.
Today, wines labeled with “pre-phylloxera” vintages go for an extremely high price and are said to be fundamentally different than wines from vines that have not been reconstituted. This summarizes the debate that self-rooted vines produce better wine than those that are grafted.