By Darren Willmott
The 19th century saw many strides forward in science and technology but, for the wine industry, progression would come at a significant and deadly cost.
Our story starts in 1861 when French wine merchant Monsieur Borty wrote to a friend in New York asking him to ship across American vines to add to his collection of European examples. Happy to oblige, the samples were received and planted in ten neat rows in his garden in 1863.
The following summer Monsieur Borty noticed that all of his European vines had started to wither and die.
Simply believing his crop was failing and would thrive again the following year he thought nothing of it, but soon other local growers started to see the same symptoms. With no forewarning of a potential plague approaching, they also awaited new growth the following year. They were all waiting in vain.
Five years later, exasperated growers invited the best scientists of the day to help diagnose their problem.
Dying vines were dug up and examined, their rotting roots suggesting that poor soil was to blame. In response vintners simply moved their vines to different plots of land. When the same symptoms continued scientists finally looked at the surviving healthy vines and discovered Phylloxera; a tiny yellow aphid feasting on the roots. At 1mm long and almost invisible to the naked eye, the next 20 years would see it kill off almost all of the vines in Europe despite its minimal size.
The newly understood problem required a solution and the government immediately offered 300,000 gold francs to anyone who could cure the malady.
Attracting all sorts of absurd solutions including drenching vines in their own wine, burying live toads in blighted vineyards, or wearing chain-mail gloves to forcefully scrape the Phylloxera off, the prize went unclaimed.
Commercial pesticides also failed and Phylloxera continued munching its way through over six million hectares of French vines. It was only when a link was made to the original imported samples that scientists were able to fathom a solution. The aphids had stowed away in the original New York consignment sent to M. Borty and, with the American vines having built up a natural resistance to the Phylloxera, were completely healthy in a way that their European cousins were not.
The agreed solution was to graft the resistant American roots on to the European vines, a practice that still happens to this very day. Whilst some smaller walled or blocked off vineyards managed to escape the Phylloxera blight, virtually all of your wine wherever it comes from is based on an American rootstock. Even the strict quarantine laws of Australia and New Zealand couldn’t keep it out.
The wine world is clearly split by pre and post Phylloxera wine and it’s tempting to wonder if these different roots make a difference to what we taste in the glass.
Those lucky enough to buy older vintages at auction say that you can taste it but sceptics use the analogy that, whilst you can cut the legs off a person, the truth of what they think and feel comes from their heart. Most of us will never know, but your best way of discovering is to drink the wines of Chile. With the Atacama Desert to the north, the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the south and west, Phylloxera never managed to travel there and their vines remain un-grafted.
Read Darren’s blog at vinesight.me