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Phylloxera epidemic

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Title: Phylloxera epidemic  
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Subject: Vitis labrusca, Gouais blanc, Mencia, Wine fraud, Cabernet Gernischt, Côtes de Toul
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Phylloxera epidemic

The Great French Wine Blight was a severe blight of the mid-19th century that destroyed many of the vineyards in France and laid to waste the wine industry. It was caused by an aphid (the actual genus of the aphid is still debated, although it is largely considered to have been a species of Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, commonly known as grape phylloxera) that originated in North America and was carried across the Atlantic in the late 1850s. While France is considered to have been worst affected, the blight also did a great deal of damage to vineyards in other European countries.

How the Phylloxera aphid was introduced to Europe remains debated: American vines had been taken to Europe many times before, for reasons including experimentation and trials in grafting, without consideration of the possibility of the introduction of pestilence. While the Phylloxera was thought to have arrived around 1858, it was first recorded in France in 1863, near the former province of Languedoc. It is argued by some that the introduction of such pests as phylloxera was only a problem after the invention of steamships, which allowed a faster journey across the ocean, and consequently allowed durable pests, such as the Phylloxera, to survive.

Eventually, following Jules-Emile Planchon's discovery of the Phylloxera as the cause of the blight, and Charles Valentine Riley's confirmation of Planchon's theory, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, two French wine growers, proposed that the European vines be grafted to the resistant American rootstock that were not susceptible to the Phylloxera. While many of the French wine growers disliked this idea, many found themselves with no other option. The method proved to be an effective remedy. The following "Reconstitution" (as it was termed) of the many vineyards that had been lost was a slow process, but eventually the wine industry in France was able to return to relative normality.


The aphid that was the central source of the damage in France was first noted following the growing of the European vine Vitis vinifera by French colonists in Florida,[2] in the 16th century. These plantations were a failure, and later experiments with related species of vine also failed, although the reason for these failures appears to have been a mystery to the French colonists. It is known today that it was a species of North American grape phylloxera that caused these early vineyards to fail; the venom injected by the Phylloxera causes a disease that is quickly fatal to the European varieties of vine.[2] The aphids went relatively unnoticed by the colonists, despite their great numbers, and the pressure and difficulty of successfully starting a vineyard in America at the time.[3]

It became common knowledge among the settlers that their European vines, of the vinifera. variety, simply would not grow in American soil, and they resorted to growing native American plants, and established plantations of these native vines. Exceptions did exist; vinifera plantations were well-established in California before the aphids found their way there.


There have been several theories proposed for why the phylloxera was ignored as the possible cause of the disease that resulted in the failure of so many vineyards, most of which involve the feeding behaviour of the insect, and the way it attacks the roots.[4] The proboscis of the grape phylloxera has both a venom canal from which it injects its deadly venom and a feeding tube through which it takes in vine sap and nutrients. As the toxin from the venom corrodes the root structure of a vine, the sap pressure falls and, as a result, the Phylloxera quickly withdraws its feeding tube and searches for another source of food. Thus, anyone digging up a diseased and dying vine will not find Phylloxera clinging to the roots of the plant.[5]

Journey to Europe

For a few centuries, Europeans had experimented with American vines and plants in their soil, and many varieties were imported from America without regulation, disregarding the possibility of pest transfer, and related problems. Jules-Emile Planchon, a French biologist, who identified the Phylloxera in the 1860s, maintained that this transfer of American vines and plants into Europe greatly increased between roughly 1858 and 1862, and this is how the Phylloxera was accidentally introduced to Europe around 1860,[6][7] although the aphid did not enter France until around 1863.[8] It is believed that the introduction of the blight-causing Phylloxera was not a problem before the advent of steamships, which were faster and hence allowed the Phylloxera to survive the quicker ocean voyage.[3]

The blight

Initial appearance

The first known documented instance of an attack by the Phylloxera in France was in a department of the former province of Languedoc,[9] some time around 1863.[8] The wine makers there did not notice the aphids, just as the French colonists in America had not, but they noted the mysterious blight that was damaging their vines. The only description of the disease that was given by these wine growers was that it 'reminded them distressingly of "consumption"'.[3] The blight quickly spread throughout France, but it was several years before the cause of the disease was determined.[3]


Over 40% of French grape vines and vineyards were devastated over a 15-year period, from the late 1850s to the mid-1870s. The French economy was badly hit by the blight; many businesses were lost, and wages in the wine industry were cut to less than half. There was also a noticeable trend of migration to, among other places, Algiers and America. The production of cheap raisins and sugar wines caused problems for the domestic industry that threatened to persist even after the blight itself. The damage to the French economy, is estimated to have been slightly over 10 billion Francs.[3]


It was not until 1868 that the French biologist Jules-Emile Planchon and two colleagues, chanced upon a group of Phylloxera sucking from the roots of a plant that a theory on the blight's cause by the Phylloxera was formed, and it was not until 1870 that American entomologist Charles Valentine Riley confirmed Planchon's theory.[10] Riley was feted as a hero by the French,[11] but the reaction to the discovery itself was mixed. Some met the news with optimism: now that the cause had been discovered, and the species identified, it would only be a matter of finding a method of eliminating the aphid. Others disagreed, saying that the insects were an effect of the blight, rather than the source. To complicate matters, the aphid's life-cycle proved difficult to study, as its lifespan differed from Europe to America.[3]


Many growers resorted to their own methods in attempt to resolve the issue. Chemicals and pesticides were used to no avail. In desperation, some growers positioned toads under each vine, and others allowed their poultry to roam free in the hope they would eat the insects.[12] None of these methods were successful.

After Charles Valentine Riley confirmed Planchon's theory, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, two French wine growers, both suggested the possibility that if vinifera vines could be combined, by means of grafting, with the aphid-resistant American vines, then the problem might be solved.

The method was tested, and proved a success.[11] The process was colloquially termed "reconstitution" by French wine growers. The cure for the disease caused a great division in the wine industry: some, who became known as the "chemists", rejected the grafting solution and persisted with the use of pesticides and chemicals. Those who became grafters were known as "Americanists", or "wood merchants".[5] Following the demonstrated success of grafting in the 1870s and 1880s the immense task of "reconstituting" the majority of France's vineyards began.


The French government had offered over 320,000 Francs as a reward to whoever could discover a cure for the blight. Having reportedly been the first to suggest the possibility of using the resistant American rootstock, Leo Laliman tried to claim the money, but the French government refused to award it, with the rationale that he had not cured the blight, but rather stopped it from occurring. However, there may have been other reasons for the government denying Laliman the prize: he was mistrusted by several notable parties, and he was thought by many to have originally introduced the pest.[3] It should also be noted that the idea of grafting American rootstock into European vines and other plants was certainly not an original notion by Laliman; according to George Ordish, in his 1987 The Great Wine Blight, a Spanish Ordinance from 1524 had experimented with grafting their vines with Mexican rootstock, to achieve agricultural gain.[5]

Present day

There is still no remedy, as such, for the Phylloxera, or the disease it brings with it, and it still poses a substantial threat to any vineyard not planted with grafted rootstock.[13] In fact, there is only one European grape vine known to be resistant to the Phylloxera, the Assyrtiko vine, which grows on the volcanic Greek island of Santorini; however there is speculation that the actual source of this resistance may arise from the volcanic ash in which the vines grow, and not from the vine itself.[14]

The events of the Great Wine Blight, and the need for European-American grafting has given rise to a debate that remains unresolved today: whether self-rooted vines produce better wine than those that are grafted.

Notes and references

  • Kolleen M. Guy When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity. JHU Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8018-7164-6
  • Gregory McNamee Moveable Feasts: The History, Science, And Lore of Food. Greenwood Press, 2006. ISBN 0-275-98931-3
  • California Dept. of Agriculture, California State Commission of Horticulture Biennial Report. Published 1901.

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