The Wampum Keeper
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(Published in Wine Tidings No. 96, July/August 1986)

In the late 1850s, a North American aphid - known as the grape phylloxera - made an unannounced Atlantic crossing and laid waste the famous vineyards of France. It destroyed 40% of French grape vines over a fifteen year period and put at risk every vine in Europe. An ingenious solution brought an end to the great French wine blight, but it arrived neither quickly nor easily.

The grape phylloxera - its scientific name has been much debated but Daktulosphaira vitifoliae is the genus and species combination currently favored in America - caused enormous social and economic damage to France. In the vine districts, wages were halved, businesses collapsed, and much of the population emigrated to Algiers or America. Quality wines had to be imported, while the production of cheap raisin and sugar wines threatened a permanent dislocation in the domestic trade. It has been said that the grape phylloxera cost France more than twice the indemnity (5,000 million francs) paid to Germany after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.

Some North Americans may take a perverse pleasure in reading of the extreme discomfort our small bug caused the French wine industry. The grape phylloxera, however, has had so profound an effect on our own viticulture, and is still after 400 years such a persistent threat to our own vines that wine growers and connoisseurs alike never make light of this pest.

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The grape phylloxera story begins with attempts by 16th century French colonists in Florida to grow the European vine Vitis vinifera. These early vine plantations failed miserably, as did countless similar experiments which followed. We know today that the North American grape phylloxera is fatal to the European vine: the insect injects a toxin which causes the small roots to swell and quickly die.

On North American vines the grape phylloxera assumes a different life style. It lives mainly on the leaves and causes injury by forming galls - structures that serve as home and nursery to millions of offspring. The degree of injury done to North American roots depends on size and species. The large roots of all North American species are not much affected by the insect. The small roots of some species such as Vitis labrusca are eventually killed by the grape phylloxera, while the small roots of others, such as Vitis riparia and Vitis rotundifolia, are resistant to it.

The legions of aphids appear to have gone unnoticed by the French colonists in Florida - a remarkable circumstance given the intense pressure some of them were under to get vineyards started in America. Their apparent oversight is partly explained by the feeding behavior of the insect. The proboscis of the grape phylloxera, as well as having a canal down which it ejects its venomous saliva, has a feeding tube through which it sucks up vine sap. When the toxin begins its fatal work on the root structure, the sap pressure in the plant falls and insects soon withdraw their tubes and move off to seek a better food source. A person digging up a dead vine will not find aphids clinging to the roots.

North American settlers continued to experiment with grape vines. The failure of the early vinifera plantations prompted the cultivation of native species. One early choice, an unfortunate one in terms of phylloxera resistance, was the labrusca, chosen for its large and prolific fruit. It was followed by plantings of riparia and aestivalis and in the south by rotundifolia.

Viticulture is an ancient and much practiced art. The noble vinifera, with its reputation for producing the world's finest wines, was not likely forgotten by early American colonists. A thousand vinifera cultivars and hybrids are thought to exist today worldwide. It is also thought highly likely that several famous American varieties of unknown origin - such as the Scuppernong and the Schuylkill - are vinifera hybrids. Nonetheless, by the 19th century, popular dogma on both sides of the Atlantic insisted that North American soils and climate were unsuitable for the vinifera. Such perceptions may well have suited European wine industries. Strangely, the dogma was held despite that fact that the vinifera grew well in California until the grape phylloxera made its way there during the 1870s.

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European wine growers over the centuries experimented with American vine species. Thousands of vines traveled the Atlantic without an official thought being given to the question of pest transfer. J.E. Planchon, a French professor of pharmacy and one of the stars of the phylloxera crisis, maintained that between 1858 and 1862 large numbers of American vines had been imported into Europe. The grape phylloxera didn't arrive in France much before 1863: it was the advent of faster steamships that permitted the insect to survive the ocean crossing.

The first attack by the grape phylloxera is thought to have been in Pujualt in the Gard, a department in the old province of Languedoc. The wine growers there didn't notice the aphids either. Instead, they spoke of the 'unknown disease' afflicting their vines. The symptoms reminded them distressingly of 'consumption'. A vine or two, usually in the center of a vineyard, would start to sicken, the leaves yellowing at first, then turning red and finally drying up and dropping. The next year the symptoms would be worse and could be seen spreading to the neighboring vines. If any fruit set, the quality would be poor: watery, acid, with no bouquet. The third year the vine was dead and when dug up the external tissues of the roots were black and rotting.

The real cause of the blight was discovered in 1868 when Professor Planchon and two colleagues dug up healthy, dying, and dead vines. They soon noticed that all the dying vines had small yellow insects on their roots. Planchon's identification of the insect as a species of aphid was followed by some optimism: all that remained was to determine the insect's life cycle, direct an attack at its weakest point and the vinifera would be saved. However, many thought the insects were an effect of the blight and not its cause. Moreover, the life cycle of the Daktulosphaira vitifoliae proved extremely difficult to determine and for good reason: the insect's life cycle differs on European and American vines.

On American vines the aphid's life is passed both above and below ground, and sexual and non-sexual methods of reproduction ensure survival of the species. On the European vinifera there is an almost complete lack of sexual reproduction, the cycle consisting mainly of parthenogenetic females.

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The pieces of the vine blight puzzle only gradually came together. In 1870 the American entomologist Charles Valentine Riley announced that the Daktulosphaira vitifoliae was indeed responsible for the European root form and the American leaf form of the blight. French wine growers Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille both suggested around this time that vinifera vines would resist the grape phylloxera if combined with American plants by means of grafting.

Grafting vinifera scions, or shoots, onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks was termed 'reconstitution' by the French. Such a radical cure was not accepted easily. French wine growers split into two camps: the 'chemists' who wanted to continue using insecticide treatments - carbon bisulphide, potassium sulphcarbonate, and flooding with water - and the 'Americanists,' often referred to as the 'wood merchants.'

As the success of American roots was demonstrated in the late 1870s and 1880s, the immense task of reconstituting virtually all the the vines in France began in earnest. Reconstitution was accepted in other European countries as well and today, with few exceptions the world over, all vines are planted on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.

The French government had offered 320,000 francs in prizes for a cure to the blight. Leo Laliman applied for the money claiming that he had been the first to announce the resistance of American rootstocks. The government turned him down on the grounds that he had not cured the phylloxera, only found a way of preventing its occurrence! It seems a dark cloud of suspicion hung over Leo Laliman which likely hurt his chances of a reward: he was thought to have first brought the pest into France.

The French government did not award prize monies to anyone. Perhaps rightfully so. Certainly the idea of grafting European vines onto North American rootstocks is not new. George Ordish, in his 1987 The Great Wine Blight, cites a Spanish Ordinance from 1524 which decreed that vine cuttings from Spain be grafted onto established native rootstocks in Mexico to bring the vines to fruition earlier.

It also may be that a few early American wine growers did notice the millions of tiny aphids on the roots of their dying vinifera vines, and noticed too that certain American vines were not much affected by the insects. These growers may well have thought to graft their precious vinifera vines onto vigorous native rootstocks, giving rise to the famous Scuppernong and the Schuylkill vines. As George Ordish points out, we simply don't know enough about early efforts to get vines started in America.

One thing is certain. The years of the phylloxera invasion were terrible ones for the small wine grower in France. Few options were open to him. He might attempt at incredible cost to save his dying vines with chemical treatments. He might be forced to hire himself out to the big men needing extra help in treating their large holdings. He might pull out his vines and switch to farming wheat and forage crops. These alternatives were both frightening and detestable to most French wine growers. Small wonder so many chose to emigrate.



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