Mark Aselstine
 
May 24, 2011 | Mark Aselstine

Phylloxera

Phylloxera

When is a 10 letter word really a 4 letter word within the wine industry? How can a tiny aphid only 1/13th of an inch long and 1/16th of an inch wide capable of inflicting billions of dollars in damage?

Phylloxera is a tiny aphid which feeds on the roots of vines. The aphid has destroyed vineyards from North America, Europe, South America and all the way to Australia and everywhere in between.

As it turns out, Phylloxera is a native of North America. Most native vines to this continent come with some level of protection against the pest, but unfortunately these grapes are more suited to making grape jam than they are wine. Concord is a great example of a native grape to North America.

As it turns out French scientists in the 1860’s wanted to study American vines and sent for a series of samples to test. Unfortunately, Phylloxera hitched a ride with the vines and the results were largely catastrophic. By 1873 the entire French wine industry was in a state of upheaval with wine quality suffering and vines literally dying by the millions. The French government went so far as to offer a reward for anyone who could come up with a solution to the problem. Chemicals were tested without success. Likelywiese vineyards were flooded with water and even white wine…the pest kept coming.

Meanwhile the fledging California wine industry was planting European vines in their fields in an attempt to improve quality levels and gain a place in the international wine market.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the pest infected California vines and the same results quickly came to fruition. Finally a solution was discovered.

Plant American rootstock, but graft on European vines so you receive vines which are resistant to Phylloxera without sacrificing quality.

Things went quite smoothly and aside from a small outbreak here and there Phylloxera wasn’t heard from again until the 1980’s when the pest started to once again destroy California vineyards. As it turns out many California vintners had planted a version of the rootstock which was in effect half American and half European, making it susceptible to Plylloxera after only a few genetic mutations. California biologists knew the risks but proceeded anyway, while their European counterparts having been hit much harder by earlier outbreaks decided to plant only truly native American rootstocks.

So what was the cost to the California wine industry due to the 1980’s explosion of Phylloxera? At least 1.2 Billion Dollars was spent to re-plant vines and wait at least three years before being able to use the grapes commercially.

There is a positive to the story though. Biology and viticulture had come leaps and bounds ahead by the time the Plylloxera hit vineyards in the 1980’s when compared with earlier invasions. This new and advanced research has allowed vineyard owners to replant vineyards with clones and grape varieties more suited to their specific growing conditions.

As we’ve found in the wine industry, not every negative is truly a negative. The Phylloexera epidemic in the 1980’s led to a tremendous amount of suffering for California vintners, but the industry wouldn’t have the same quality level today if the pest had never come back to its ancestral home.

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