Articles and Reviews

The Story of Phylloxera

Posted by: Andy Kelly

Date: 29-04-2020

I was recently offered the opportunity to appear as a panellist on Cask 88’s TV show devoted to all things whisky. On the show, we discussed the devastation Phylloxera caused and how the whisky industry was able to benefit. This article is an accompaniment to my appearance and provides a much more in-depth view of the pest that nearly killed the French wine industry.

Crest of a Wave

By the middle of the 19th century, the French wine industry was basking in a golden age. French wines were renowned the world over and it seemed that France couldn’t put a foot wrong when it came to wine. Bordeaux wines were considered among the best in the world and the region enjoyed increasing exports of claret to Britain whilst also serving the interests of the Parisian market. The 1855 classification system, now enshrined in French law, was commissioned by Napoleon III and ranked the best Château’s in Bordeaux according to “growths”. That system, the 1855 classification of Bordeaux, has rarely changed since.

Between 1825 – 1850, vineyard acreage in Languedoc doubled and wines from this region were soon to be served by the Paris-Lyon-Marseilles railway meaning that they could reach the markets in Paris and further afield.

Tax cuts introduced by Robert Peel in the 1840’s slashed the duties on Cognac which allowed exports to Britain to double within 6 years. Further cuts on wine introduced by Gladstone in the early 1860’s meant that French wine imports to Britain grew six-fold in a short period of time and by the 1880’s French wine was enjoying 40% market share, up from 8% in the 1850’s.

The US market was vast and was still growing. They enjoyed a cocktail boom for much of the 19th century and Brandy was the base drink for many of these cocktails. The rich landowners, particularly in the south, had an unquenching thirst for Cognac which seemed never ending until the outbreak of the US Civil War.

The Onset

By 1863, however, things began to change. Vineyards in Provence had begun to notice that some of their vines were displaying “consumptive like” symptoms. The fruit was unripe, the leaves were withering with galls and within three years the vine would be dead. More worryingly, the issue was spreading and by 1866 it had affected enough vineyards for the agricultural press to take note. In 1868 Jules-Emile Planchon, a professor at Montpellier University, decided to investigate and visited Château de Lagoy which was one of the many affected estates.

Around him, Planchon saw vines in varying states of health. Healthy vines were inexplicably among those that were already sick and those that had long died. Upon pulling up a healthy vine, he spotted thousands of tiny aphid-like creatures swarming over the area. Realising that they resembled a species of Phylloxera that resides on oak leaves (Phylloxera Quercus) he decided to name this pest Phylloxera Vastatrix – The Devastator – and never has a creature been so aptly named.

It was found that the creature would eat away at the roots and leaves of the vine. Whilst the damage was only superficial to the leaves, open wounds would develop on the tender roots which allowed further diseases to affect the vine. Vines didn’t die from Phylloxera, they were dying because of their weakness to other diseases caused by Phylloxera. The creature was a randy little sod too. It would reproduce rapidly and when in winged form it would be carried from the leaves of a vine by the wind to the surrounding areas where it would repopulate and devastate. It was also difficult to pin down too as the aphids will have eaten enough of a vine and moved on long before the vine withered and died.

The Damage Caused

Between 1860 – 1875, the total vineyard acreage in France fell by 40%. In the 30 years since Phylloxera’s discovery, 60% of France’s vineyard acreage was wiped out and wine production fell by 70% causing untold damage to the French economy. France produced 83.6 million hectolitres of wine that was worth 545 million francs to the French economy in 1875. By 1889 it produced 23 million hectolitres of wine which was worth only 8 million francs. Wages in the industry halved over the same period and vineyards that would sell for 12,000 francs per hectare were now only selling for 600 francs per hectare as corn fields. From being a key exporter of wine by a ratio of 8/1, France was now importing much more than it was exporting. In 1887 alone it spent 545 million francs, the same number that its wine sold for in 1875, in importing wine that it could no longer produce.

French Brandy production was hardest hit. Within 3 decades of Phylloxera’s discovery, 83% of Charente’s vineyards was no longer under grape cultivation. The soils that gave Cognac its unique properties were now working against it as though it took Phylloxera longer to settle in the area, it took even longer to implement the cure.

The gap in the market gave rise to unscrupulous winemakers and merchants who were producing much cheaper wine and selling it at exorbitant prices. Many fraudsters were selling poorly made wine but advertising it as if had come from the most renowned Château's. Across eastern Europe, people began producing Brandy of varying quality and selling it as Cognac which piled further pressure on to the already ailing region, damaging its lofty reputation.

Other Beneficiaries

Vineyards in Spain, Italy and Germany were quick to pounce on the confusion and increase their market share. Initially, Spain benefitted the most and the largest winemaker’s mass-produced grapes as much as they could to meet demand. Eventually, Phylloxera reached these regions too and though the damage was still significant, Spain, Italy and Germany had the advantage of being prepared for the crisis as it played out in France.

Algeria benefitted greatly as many winemakers emigrated to the country (then a French colony). Even today Algeria boasts a healthy winemaking tradition, producing some quality wines.

Markets in the UK, US and France were looking for a suitable alternative to Brandy and they eventually turned to whisky. Scotch distilleries were already enjoying a rise in demand before Phylloxera became a major problem but the damage it wrought, along with a number of other key developments in the whisky industry (tax cuts, the use of sherry casks to mature the whisky and prominent publications about Scottish distilleries), saw demand surge. To this day, France is the world’s leading consumer of scotch.

An Unlikely Passenger

But how had this creature gotten to France and why had it never been encountered before? The answer, as was typical for the 19th century, was “those damned English”! Botany had become a favourite past time of many a middle-class Victorian and many amateur and professional botanists alike were importing all kinds of new plant species from the United States to England. The advent of the steamship also meant that travel which would have normally taken a couple of months to and from the US could be done in a matter of weeks and this offered not only a greater chance for the plant species to arrive, but also the Phylloxera which hitched a ride on them.

French Indecision

Finding a cure proved to be an uphill task and was largely down to human calamity as much as it was human ingenuity. The French government were initially slow to act and Napoleon III pressed on with an ill-advised and ill-fated war against Prussia in the early 1870’s. Within weeks of going on the offensive, the French army was barricaded inside Paris with Prussia at the gates. The war was only concluded when Napoleon agreed to pay Bismarck 1500 tons of gold and cede Alsace and Lorraine to Germany.

Even the governments involvement early on was inadequate. A commission was set up in the early 1870’s and a small reward offered to anybody who came up with the cure. Some of the suggestions were heroic in their idiocy; Burying a live toad in a clay jar under each vine (borrowed from Pliny’s Natural History) was suggested, along with spraying the vines with holy water, urine and wine. Marching bands were employed to beat their drums near the vines to no avail and even exorcism was suggested. The icing on the cake was that all of these suggestions were tried and tested, wasting the precious time of the scientists in the process.

To further rub salt in the wound, Pliny’s Natural History had the answer, along with Virgil’s poems. Even a judicial order promoted by Hernan Cortes during his colonisation of Mexico 1,500 years later held the answer and nobody bothered to investigate this further. Those that did suggest it weren’t taken seriously until around 1875 when Phylloxera had long settled in France’s vineyards. The answer, of course, was to graft European vines on to American rootstocks.

The Cure

Because Phylloxera had arrived from the US and had been munching on vines for centuries, American rootstocks had evolved to such a degree that they were resistant to the damage that the aphid could cause. As the rootstocks had toughened over time to resist the little aphid, it had confined itself to just eating the leaves which was considered much less dangerous, even harmless by American farmers.

Grafting European vines on to American rootstocks was met with initial scepticism as many winemakers thought that they would lose the unique taste of their wines and the process would be a huge undertaking both economically and physically. It wasn’t until the International Phylloxera conference of 1881 that the idea was put up for serious debate. In the period leading up to the conference, some headway had been made in treating Phylloxera.

Some vineyards had resorted to flooding their entire area which was met with some success though many winemakers found that Phylloxera would return after some time. Flooding was only really useful for those vineyards on flat land too which ruled out countless other winemakers. Other winemakers had resorted to fumigation as it was discovered that carbon bisulphide was particularly toxic to Phylloxera. The issue with the fumigation was that the carbon bisulphide was toxic to almost everything else, including humans. Initial trials killed the vines and made the workers ill. The process was also ridiculously expensive, meaning that only the most prosperous vineyards could afford it and users of the process diced with the increasing possibility of being immolated!

At the conference, it was carbon bisulphide VS vine grafting and vine grafting edged what was often a heated debate. It was going to be a massive undertaking and despite the matter having been settled, many winemakers still resisted the notion of grafting. Bordeaux winemakers threw their weight behind the idea in 1881 but it wasn’t until 1887 that Burgundy followed suit. In 1891, Phylloxera had reached Champagne and, whilst the majority of winemakers in the region wholeheartedly supported vine grafting, many smaller growers resisted and saw it as a plot by the larger growers to gain control of their vineyards.

Grafting of European vines on to American rootstocks was a huge undertaking. Vast amounts of vineyard acreage were dug up and replanted over time. The new rootstocks needed time to acclimatise to their new surroundings which meant that yields wouldn’t be expected for at least the first three years after plantation. The cost to a vineyard in money, time and manpower to see a successful yield was unimaginable and even though grafting was seen as the saviour of the wine industry, it too, was beset by problems.

Firstly, the rootstocks themselves brought their own disease which French winemakers were not prepared for. They called it “downy mildew” and It was able to cause significant damage to vineyards before being brought under control relatively quickly. Furthermore, the rootstocks would not acclimatise to the soils in Cognac. Many species of vines were tested before a suitable one was found that could handle Cognac’s distinctively chalky soil. It wasn’t until the mid-1880’s that species of rootstocks were found. T.V Munson, an American horticulturalist and grape grower, advised French grape growers of a number of species that might take to the soils in Cognac. They did and to this day Cognac is sistered with his home town of Denison, Texas in honour of his service to the region.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Today, the wine we drink from France is Europe’s species of vine, Vitis Vinifera, grafted on to any one number of American rootstock species. Debate has raged ever since about whether wines pre Phylloxera tasted any better than post Phylloxera. There is little evidence to suggest either way but it is likely that the process of grafting, along with any other number of scientific interventions has impacted the taste of wine over the years. Furthermore, despite the dithering of the French government in finding a cure, it was found just in time to allow the French wine industry to recover sufficiently to weather the storms of two world wars and prohibition. Similarly, the surge in popularity of Scotch around the same time allowed it to weather these exact storms too. In any case, at least we are allowed to look back on this piece of history with a wry smile (if not complete incredulity) and a glass of our favourite Bordeaux or Burgundy white in our hands because, thankfully, the French wine industry survived and we’re all the better for it.

Further Reading:

Hyams. E. Dionysus, A Social History of the Wine Vine, Sedgewick & Jackson, 1987

Johnson. H The Story of Wine, Mitchell Beazley, 1998

Ordish. G, The Great Wine Blight, Sedgewick & Jackson, 1987