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  • Writer's pictureLushmuddled

PHYLLOXERA - USA Invades Europe!

You'll often hear people speak about 'old vines' in the wine world. Depending on where you are, old vines mean something different, but generally it refers to anything older than 35 years. In places like the Barossa Valley, the classification includes survivor vines for anything older than 70 years, centenarian vine for 100 years and ancestor vines for anything 125 years or older. From a commercial standpoint, many of the world's oldest vines are found in New World countries - South Africa has the oldest Chenin Blanc, the USA has the oldest Zinfandel/Primitivo, Chile the oldest Carmenere and Australia the oldest Shiraz. You may be wondering why I'm not mentioning European countries in this list, where winemaking has been practiced for thousands of years old, not hundreds. The answer is simply phylloxera.


Humanoid Exclusion Zone. Do it for the grapes.

Phylloxera is one of the most horrible things that could happen in a vineyard, and it was responsible for wiping out anywhere between 66% and 90% of all the vines in Europe. Mention it to some winemakers and viticulturists, and you'll see the colour drain from their faces. Most, if not all, custodians of old vines will make you wash your shoes before entering vineyards to keep it safe - if you walk phylloxera into a vineyard, you would be responsible for its slow, but inevitable, ruin. Side note - this is why vineyards have signs saying KEEP OUT. It is weird how many people ignore this and unintentionally bring diseases in for the sake of a selfie. If you love wine - KEEP OUT.


Okay, you may be wondering, so what is phylloxera? A bacteria? A virus? The answer is neither. It is a tiny tiny insect - we're talking almost microscopic - which is native to North America. Most people say it's like an aphid, and others say it's more like lice. It feeds on the sap of plants, specifically on vines roots. American vines, which are a species named vitis labrusca, evolved coping mechanisms. Their sap is sticky, which repels the insect, and they quickly heal any feeding wounds before a fungal infection takes hold. European vines, a species named vitis vinifera, had and have no defences. They suffer the full and deadly effects of the insect's feeding, toxin and resulting infection.


Phylloxera infestation

I am sure you can imagine just how bad things got when this reached Europe. History is full of introduced diseases sweeping through animal, plant and human populations. This was no different. What is odd, though, is that it didn't appear in Europe until the mid- to late-1800s. While soil and plants had been crossing the Atlantic Ocean for centuries, phylloxera somehow never made it. The probable reason is that the trans-Atlantic journey was simply too long for it to survive. This journey was significantly shortened by the arrival of the steam boat. What took three or four weeks now took six days. It was smaller British vineyards which were ruined first during the 1850s and, in 1863, winemakers in southern France began to notice a mysterious disease affecting their vineyards. The Great French Wine Blight had begun.


Certain islands were spared because they were isolated, and some vines lucky enough to be in specific soils survived as well. Phylloxera, people soon learnt, loves clay but cannot tolerate sandy soils. There is still debate today whether Assyrtiko, a grape found on Santorini, had natural defences or whether it by the soil's high percentage of volcanic ash. My point is that are still things we simply do not know about phylloxera even today, so the fact that it took five years for the cause of the mysterious blight to be found makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, during these five years a lot of the damage had been done. Searching for almost microscopic insects the ground is not necessarily impossible, but it certainly isn't easy. Phylloxera also moves on from a dead vines to find fresh food, they were never found on a 'autopsy.' It was Jules-Emile Planchard, working with American colleagues, who was able to prove that the American insect was the issue. By this time, though, the Great French Wine Blight had certainly become a European problem.


From Punch magazine in the 1890s

The French government put up a 320 000 franc reward (some USD$1.6 million, as best I can calculate) for finding a cure for phylloxera. All insecticides and pesticides were, and are, useless against it unless you want to destroy the vines as well. The solution was found by Leo Laliman and, to this day, remains the only effective solution. The wine making vinifera vine had to be grafted onto the phylloxera resistant labrusca roots, or rootstock. This was not a quick process either. Vineyards were replanted throughout the remainder of the 19th century, and it wasn't until the early 1900s that phylloxera was 'under control.' The reward was never paid though. Laliman did lay claim to it but the French government, in a masterclass of bureaucratic technicality, maintained that he hadn't cured phylloxera, merely prevented it.


Replanting to American rootstock may sound like a great solution, but it is a bitter victory. Healthy vines had to be ripped out and new grafts had to be planted to prevent the spread. Those very special vineyards, which had a perfect combination of terroir and grape, which had become old vines, were destroyed. Thousands of years of winemaking history had to start from the beginning. It wasn't just a sense of history and tradition which was lost, but also quality - when vines age they start to bear less fruit, but the grapes become flavoursome and make for better wine. It was a tragic loss, and this is the reason why so many of the oldest vines can be found outside of Europe. A lot of the vines planted by European settlers in the New World were simply unaffected by the troubles in the Old World.


Vines planted on their own roots (ungrafted vinifera vines) are certainly the minority these days and they are protected as best they can be. While phylloxera had infected almost every wine producing country - Chile seems to have largely escaped - the movement of soil and vines is strictly controlled with quarantine methods. Despite this, the threat of phylloxera remains present. In Champagne, some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines were torn up by Bollinger in 2004 after infestation was discovered. It is a humbling experience to drink wine made from these old vines which capture so much history. While Europe stills holds several old vines, the oldest being 400 years old in Slovenia, they are under constant threat. Old vines are not only pieces of history, they are beautiful living things.

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