Phylloxera is a very complex organism and has had a longtime relationship with wine. There are so many aspects of this relationship, I’ve decided to break it up into several blog entries. My first post was about the organism itself – more biological. This second entry will be the history of phylloxera infestation in France and what it meant to the US wine industry. The final post will be about how the wine industry fought back. I hope you enjoy. In the last post, I discussed the biological aspect of Phylloxera. It’s life cycle and how it causes damage to the grape vine. Now I’m going to discuss its emergence in France and what happened after its discovery. Picture it, mid 1800’s, France. (sorry, I’m a Golden Girls fan and Estelle Getty’s character cracked me up.) The French wine industry is booming. Vines are planted everywhere and people both in France and other countries love French wine. In order to continue their success, French vineyard managers were looking for new ways to improve their product. American vines were being brought to France, like they had been so many times before. The thought of introducing a pest had never entered anyone’s mind. The first official case of Phylloxera was recorded in 1863 in a region near the province of Languedoc.
The Phylloxera themselves, were not seen by the people in the vineyards, instead they noticed the damage the louse caused. Unable to explain it, they compared the damage to tuberculosis, known as consumption, in humans. In 1868 a French biologist named Jules-Emile Planchon, was walking through a vineyard with some colleagues and actually noticed the plant lice. Finally, in 1870 an American entomologist (studies insects), Charles Valentine Riley, was able to prove that the Phylloxera was indeed the cause for the damage to the vines. This knowledge was met with two viewpoints. Some believed the blight would be over soon since they now knew what caused it, while others still did not believe these tiny little insects could be the cause of the massive destruction. Instead they thought the lice were there because of the blight as opposed to causing it. To add to the difficulty, remember the potentially 18 part life cycle of Daktulospharia vitifoliae discussed in my previous post? It is a very complex organism to study with varying life cycles not only dependent on humidity, but it also varies in the US and France.
As more and more vines became infected, panic became widespread. (Wouldn’t you be panicked if you saw your livelihood dying in front of your eyes, with no way to battle it?) Over a 15 year period, over forty percent of the grape vines were gone. Wineries shut down, causing a more than 50% reduction of wine being produced. This is a major epoch in California wine history.
a grafted grape vine
At this point vignerons, the grape growers, decided to leave the area. They needed to support their families and it wasn’t going to happen there. So they chose to leave their lives in France and move to Rioja, South America, and some came to California and they brought their skills with them.
By this time, it was widely thought the the insects came to France as “passengers” on American vines. Previously, because there was no quick way to get the vines to France, the lice died. But with the invention of steamships, the trip was so much faster, the Phylloxera were able to survive. This led to the belief that American Vinifera were resistant to Phylloxera. Sothe vignerons came to California, along with their knowledge and grafted grapes on resistant rootstock. This introduced French varietals into California.