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There’s Still No Cure For Grape Phylloxera

What was the cause of the grape phylloxera destruction and how come there is still no cure?


What is Grape Phylloxera?

Phylloxera is a microscopic louse or aphid, that lives on and eats roots of grapes. It can infest a vineyard from the soles of vineyard worker’s boots or naturally spreading from vineyard-to-vineyard by proximity.

Burning Vineyards
Families and businesses alike lost their vineyards to a microscopic aphid: Grape Phylloxera is a louse. credit

A lil’ history on the unstoppable plight

A scourge erupted in Europe that nearly destroyed every single wine grape in the world. In the late 1800’s, wineries all over Europe ripped up and burned their family’s ancient vineyards in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of disease.

By the 1900s Phylloxera had taken a beyond-imaginable toll: over 70% of the vines in France were dead –the livelihoods of thousands of families were ruined. All of a sudden, the world launched into an international wine deficit.

In one scenario, three small precious plots of Pinot Noir owned by Bollinger in Champagne magically resisted the louse. The resulting 3000 bottles of wine called “Vieille Vignes Françaises” (French Old Vines) became the most sought-after bottles of Champagne.

A Bounty for the Cure

Devastated by the wrath, the Minister of Agriculture and Commerce in France offered 20,000 Francs –$1 million today– to anyone who could find a cure.

Where did Phylloxera come from?

Sorry to say, it came from the United States! This is where things start to get interesting:

Portrait of the Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy
The sad tail of Count Agoston Haraszthy

Phylloxera may have spread through the unintended actions of “Count” Agoston Haraszthy, the man who started Sonoma’s oldest winery, Buena Vista Winery, in 1857.

In 1861, Haraszthy traveled to Europe tromping through the vineyards in France, Germany and Switzerland to collect samples. He brought back cuttings of 350 different types of grapes and started an experimental vineyard in Sonoma.

Sadly, the vines turned brown and died –the first infestation of Phylloxera in the U.S.. After much defeat, Agoston Haraszthy filed for bankruptcy and eventually left the U.S., never to return.

Scientists of the day made a great effort to understand the little louse.

The genus Phylloxera is characterized by having three-jointed antennae, the third or terminal much the longest, and by carrying its wings overlapping flat on the back instead of roof-fashion. It belongs to the whole-winged bugs (Homoptera), and osculates between two great families of that sub-order, the plant-lice (Aphididae) on the one hand and the bark-lice {Coccidae) on the other. In the one-jointed tarsus of the larva or newly-hatched louse, and in being always oviparous, it shows its affinities with the latter family; but in the two-jointed tarsus of the more mature individuals, and in all other characters, it is essentially aphididan.
CHAS. V. RILEY, M. A., Ph. D. “The Grape Phylloxera” Popular Science, May 1874

The Reward Was Never Paid!

Over 450 articles poured out about the subject of Phylloxera between the years of 1868 – 1871. Studies were conducted with test plantings, poison, flooding, soil types, grape breeding alternatives, and much more.

Then, an independent group of researchers including a Frenchman, Jules Émile Planchon, and an American, Charles Valentine Riley, discovered a solution! Grafting vitis vinifera (the European grapevine) onto American root stock stopped the root-eating louse.

While the original researchers never sought the reward, which had grown to nearly $5 million of today’s money, a viticulturist in Bordeaux called Leo Laliman did. Laliman had taken the experimental techniques and turned them into a commercial practice in Bordeaux. The government turned him down, saying that he’d merely used preventive measures and didn’t develop a cure.

European Wine Grapes with American Roots

Today rootstock is still used for much of the wine world and phylloxera is still a danger.

The danger is no less in the U.S. In the 1990’s a mutation of Phylloxera called “Biotype B,” was found thriving in AXr1, which was a common rootstock. About two thirds of the vineyards in Napa during the 90’s were replanted. Phylloxera has also devastated many ungrafted vineyards in Oregon, whose owners had hoped that the louse wouldn’t infest the virgin soils.

Phylloxera Resistant Vineyards

There have been several cases where vineyards have remained untouched by grape phylloxera. While many of these locations are a mystery, a high proportion of the phylloxera-resistant vineyards have sandy soils in areas with high winds.

In Australia, Queensland was infected in the 1870s. The Australian governement responded to protect their precious vineyards with the Vine Protection Act of 1874, which ceased the common practice of transporting vines, machinery and equipment throughout the states. Today, Tasmania and Western Australia have still never been infested.

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