How America Saved European Winemaking (After First Destroying It)

How America Saved European Winemaking (After First Destroying It)

As much as we all love the traditional Fourth of July favorites — barbeques, hot dogs, cold macro-brewed American beer, or anything that can be made with red, white, and blue —there’s no reason why you shouldn’t feel as patriotic drinking the best wines of Europe. If that thought just doesn’t process, think of it as an excuse to practice your French Bastille Day celebrations in less than two weeks!

The idea of enjoying international wines as an act of patriotism may be farfetched, but there are reasons behind my assertion and one very important reason, Phylloxera. Phylloxera is to wine what locusts are to crops.  It’s a small yellow aphid that feeds on the roots of certain species of the genus Vitis (wine grapes) that originated in the New World. This formerly unknown and unwelcomed gift from America changed European wines forever. The damaged wrecked by Phylloxera rivals Ireland’s potato blight as perhaps one of the worst plant diseases with widespread social and economic effects.

Before you point the finger and question how you can be patriotic for having caused the devastation of European wine, its best to use history to absolve ourselves of any wrongdoing for the devastation of Phylloxera (Also better to give Phylloxera than small pox right?). From the fifteenth century onward, European explorers were bringing vegetation from the New World back to their homes in Europe. Staples such as potatoes, corn, and tomatoes ensconced themselves within European cuisine thanks to the likes of Columbus, Vespucci, and Magellan.

Even the British got in on the craze of all things New World. The Victorian era British, with their vast new wealth from the industrial revolution, enthusiastically built elaborate botanical gardens. Charles Darwin published his seminal Origin of Species in 1859 which furthered the world’s and Britain’s fascination with the natural world. Sadly, it was also this enthusiasm and a love of wine that caused American grapevines and their ticking time-bomb, Phylloxera, to arrive in the English isles. As David Bird puts it in Understanding Wine Technology, it is, “the permanent shame of England,” that the devastation of Phylloxera came to Britain and soon to all of Europe.

What exactly does Phylloxera (Dactylosphaera Vitifoliae) do? This aphid has a complex life cycl,e but it does its worst damage when some of its larvae venture deep into the soil and attach themselves to feed on the root of Vitis[1]. After months and sometimes years of this 

feeding, the vine succumbs and dies. Phylloxera is native to the east coast of the United States which has allowed American grapevines to evolve defense mechanisms to Phylloxera over time.

By other accounts, Phylloxera Vastatrix (“the devastator”) in the 19th century was a mystery to French vignerons who could do nothing but watch their vineyards and livelihoods die. In France alone, Phylloxera was responsible for the destructions of over 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres) causing France’s wine production to drop from a peak of 84.5 million hL in 1875 to a mere 23.4 million hL in 1889! And if those numbers by themselves don’t make Phylloxera’s damage clear consider what those drops meant to the French. At the end of the 19th century, French wine consumption was at its peak thanks to the expanding railways. Industrial cities in the north of France now embraced their bacchanalian love of wine thanks to cheap wine from the south. The average wine consumption per head per year between 1850 and 1880 rose from 50L to 80L. Do the math and that’s 106 bottles of wine a year. Phylloxera, with its American passport, crashed this party — big time. 

Today, science would call Phylloxera an invasive species. Yet at the time it was decimating vineyards, such a concept didn’t exist. It had only been a decade since Louis Pasteur first discovered the role of yeast in fermentation, and it would be another seventy-two years for Alexander Fleming to discover Penicillin. Needless to say, there was a mad dash to expand scientific understanding to find a solution. Wine was such an integral part of the French economy that the French government offered a prize of 300,000 francs for a solution to the problem of Phylloxera. For such a prize, the French government received ideas ranging from the bizarre (planting toads underneath the roots of grapevines) to the progressive (interplanting vines with more attractive hosts for the aphid) to the thankfully no longer used practice of letting the French schoolboys out of class twice daily to urinate on the vines!

It wasn’t until Jules-Emile Planchon, a French botanist, had the reasoned thought that if healthy American grapevines could be dug up with Phylloxera attached to their roots then the solution for French vines was to graft the vine portion of Europe’s Vitis Vinifera to the roots of American vines such as Vitis Labrusca, Vitis Riparia, and others. Indeed Phylloxera did not kill American vines just the European Vitis Vinifera. Soon after a French viticulturalist, Henri Bouschet – yes, the same man who created the varietal Alicante Bouschet and whose father created Petit Bouschet – displayed a vinifera vine grafted onto American rootstock at a Congrès Viticole in Montpellier in 1874. It was then clear that the European wine industry could be saved by American Rootstocks. America had been the root (no pun intended) of this devastating plague but also the source to be its salvation!

Still not feeling entirely patriotic about America’s role in the Phylloxera epidemic? The destruction of so many vineyards meant pain and suffering, but let’s not forget that Phylloxera also meant an opportunity to improve upon the past. Post-Phylloxera, vignerons replanted their grapevines in rows instead of the more traditional en foule  practice of randomized spacing. Tractors and farm technology could now rumble down the rows and let vineyards become ever bigger. Large scale vineyards meant more wine, more exports, and more bottles to fill cellars. Being forced to replant vineyards also provided an opportunity for estates to consciously choose which varietals to plant instead of simply maintaining what he been planted generations ago.

We should all have innumerable reasons to celebrate every Fourth of July but this year, why not celebrate the part we played in the history of wine? I’ll drink to that.

[1] Grapevines are part of the family Vitaceae. Vitaceae have fourteen genera – one of which is Parthenocissus... yes this is the ivy grown at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field (Go Cubs!). However, the most important genera for wine or Vitaceae being Vitis. Vitis consist of around 60 different species, the most important being, Vitis Vinifera a.k.a. the European grapevine and therefore the grape specie responsible for all the grape varietals we know and love (For varietal think Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay – both are varietals of the same species, Vitis Vinifera). Some of the non-European grapevine species used for winemaking are the American Vitis Labrusca (north American concord grape) and Vitis Riparia (grown along riverbanks in the United States).