Wine 101

10. The Sad Story of Phylloxera

Phylloxera is equal parts myth, legend, and complicated scientific lingo.

As you may have learned at your expense, it is also a word that so-called connoisseurs like to throw around like candy. To help you navigate the wine circles you might now feel comfortable to mingle with (you’re welcome, guys), here is, in pure #antisomm fashion, a little 101 guide to learn the meaning of yet another prized wino buzzword: phylloxera.

1. Phylloxewhat? – Definition

When a dude or dudette is talking about the disastrous influence of phylloxera in Europe, you must first know that s/he is not trying to tell you about substance abuse among winemakers (why did your mind automatically go there, dude?). Rather, s/he most likely refers to a tiny bug that literally devastated the world’s vineyards between 1860 and 1970. And when I say devastated, I mean more than70% French vineyards were completely destroyed! Yep, a global industry was completely paralyzed by a 2mm-tall bug. True story.

The bug in question – photo credit: Wikipedia

And how could they manage that, you ask? Well, they eat vines for a living!

Phylloxera actually lives and feeds on the vines’ underground roots, leeching away nutrients that normally allow the vine to survive. 3 years post-infection, the majority of vineyards become all stunted and eventually die of starvation. Sad story, isn’t it?

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Just thinking about it I ball in my Merlot.

2. Where did phylloxera come from?

People wondered about that for a long while, and nobody ever saw it coming. After all, vines had been growing for centuries without a problem!. To make a long story short, it was once again America’s fault (Thank, guys).

Indeed, phylloxera is a born and bred American delicacy. It lived on the continent for ages without causing any problem since the types of vines that grew here are resistant to it. However, as I discussed in my article on Quebec wines, European vines (vitis viniefera for those who went to private school) are generally considered more “noble”, and tend to make the best wine. Savvy American winemakers therefore quickly decided to import European vines and plant them in California to get better product. The vines died quickly – phylloxera oblige – and no one really knew why. They just gave up, y’know?

Well, had it been only that nobody would still give a flying frog, right? The true issue came up, however, when some smart cookie had the opposite idea: Yay, let’s take those funky American vines and plant them in France just for the hell of it! This obviously brought up some American soil containing phylloxera to Europe, and a few years later, millions of vines died and thousands of families lost their entire livelihood. Intense stuff, right?

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Add this to the pile of lessons applying the principle of don’t mess with nature, stupid. Here’s to hoping we ever learn!

3. And how did we get out of it?

What may surprise you is that there is still no cure / insecticide / antidote to successfully get rid of phylloxera without killing the vine or make it toxic at the same time. Indeed, after more than a century, the scientific world is still unable to kill a 2mm bug without compromising the whole harvest at the same time.

Rather than geting rid of it, then, we learned to live with it. Some savvy winemakers ended up clicking on the fact that phylloxera was a problem only in European vineyards, and not in America. Since phylloxera lives, as we have seen, on the roots of the vines, they had the genius idea of grafting European vines onto North American roots. TADAH: European vineyards were now resistant to the parasite!

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Obviously, many were afraid that the new roots would change the taste of the resulting wine. Experimental research fortunately quickly demonstrated that vines were a “neutral” component for grapes. Basically, this means that if you have a Merlot vineyard and you’d rather have Chardonnay, you just have to cut the trunks (named permanent wood in oenological linguo) and graft the roots onto the new variety. Cool stuff, right?

Obviously, we can easily imagine the astronomical costs of pulling off nearly all the vines of Europe to replant them on new roots – we’re talking racks are racks on racks. Despite that, the industry managed to recover, and with new technological advances, the wine produced today is (probably) just as good if not better!

4. Conclusion

So that was my little lesson on phylloxera! Liked it? Enjoyed it? Any questions? Hit me up in the comments!

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