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"... good food, good wine, good company, can make good people." 

William Shakespeare, King Henry VIII, Act I, Scene IV, Sir Henry Guilford's character.


The Phylloxera Plague

Winery Insight Featured Article - August 2004 by Timothy O. Rice


In the early 1860s, wine began to die.

No one can be quite sure of the day or the place.  Some say it was late in the decade of the 1850s.  Others point to an agricultural exhibition in England in 1863.  All that is really known is that by the middle years of the 1860s the great vineyards of Europe were being devastated with France -- the greatest wine nation -- the worst hit of all.


The first recorded incidents are thought to have been in Pujualt in the Languedoc province of France.  No one knew what was happening.  A vine or two would seem to sicken, the leaves turning yellow and then red before dropping off.  The second year would see the disease spread to other vines.  By the third year the vine would be dead, the roots rotted and black.


Naturally enough, the search began for a solution.  Stricken vines were uprooted and burned.  Treatments, harsh and sometimes bizarre such as carbon bisulphide, potassium sulphcarbonate, and flooding with water, were applied to vines without success.  In a period of about 15 years, some say 40% of the vines in France sickened and died.  Production dropped like a stone, businesses failed, unemployment soared, people emigrated by the thousands to desperately seek a new life.  Some say the destruction in France cost more than the loss of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 with the huge indemnity France paid to the new German state.

Finally, in 1868, the famous botanist Jules-Emile Planchon led an investigation that discovered the cause.  By digging up and comparing the roots of dead, sick, and healthy vines, they found a tiny pest, an aphid or root-louse, on all the sick roots but not on any of the healthy or dead roots.  This brought hope to the wine world.  Now that the enemy had been seen, he could be fought.  The search began for the source of this infestation.


Two years later, an American stepped forward to identify it.  Charles Valentine Riley, an entomologist who had worked at Kew Gardens, announced that the mysterious pest was Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, the grape phylloxera louse of America.  These tiny insects injected a poison into the roots as they fed.  When the roots sickened and died, they moved on to seek better feeding grounds, so they were never present in the dead roots dug up and examined.


Planchon theorized that the phylloxera had come across the Atlantic in 1858-1862, when large numbers of American vine clippings had been brought to Europe.  Before that time, he thought, the length of the journey under sail had tended to kill off the bug, but the introduction of faster steamships had allowed them to survive the voyage.  The reason for the sudden importation of so many American clippings?  In the 1840s and 1850s the American wine industry had suddenly become a success due to the efforts of Nicholas Longworth in Cincinnati.  Like all businesses, the Europeans had been looking at what their competitors were doing, and were bringing in samples of the new varieties.


Research continued.  In America, the blight affected the leaves of plants, but the plants survived.  In Europe, it attacked the the roots.  Why?  Inquiry suggested that the American plants survived because they had evolved larger, tougher roots where the European vines had small, thin-skinned roots.  A solution was seen: plant American vines and the roots would survive.


Two schools of thought evolved.  The "chemists" kept trying to apply solutions and flood vineyards to kill the phylloxera.  These methods showed some success in limited use but were expensive and difficult to implement everywhere.   The "Americanists" began uprooting sick vines and planting American vines, then grafting European vines to the American root-stock.  As time went on, it became apparent that the "Americanist" method worked.  The vineyards of Europe were replanted, the European vinis vinifera grafted onto American roots.  Wine, as we know it, was saved.


The phylloxera problem did not disappear overnight; it did not disappear at all.  For the rest of the Nineteenth Century, the pest continued to search out and destroy European vineyards, wiping out 70 percent of the vines in Europe by 1900 according to estimates.  From France it spread across the continent to Spain, Italy, Germany, wherever vineyards existed.  As the grafting of European vinis vinifera to the American root-stock was an expensive process, many lesser varieties were left behind and became extinct.


At the same time, a major effort had been made to find areas where the phylloxera did not exist.  Wineries sent out emissaries, men forced to emigrate planted new vineyards in America, Australia, Argentina and elsewhere.  One man, a master vintner from one of the great houses of Champagne named Renault, started a winery in New Jersey that still exists today.  As they struggled and worked, the wine industry spread across the globe.


Today, most of the vines in the world have been rendered resistant to the phylloxera by the grafting process, but phylloxera is not extinct.  There have been outbreaks in California and Oregon in recent years, causing vineyards to be ripped out and replanted.  The worst of those was the 1979 outbreak of Phylloxera B, a strain that attacked the root-stock most prevalent in California.


Like most battles between man and nature, the war with phylloxera goes on.

 Last modified: August 07, 2007