Phylloxera is a tiny bug, almost too small to be seen, a relative of an aphid, that sucks sap from vines and other plants. This issue is that while the Phylloxera doesn’t destroy vines itself, it does leave holes in roots large enough to allow fungal and other infections to take place. Over the longer term, infection leads to a vine being starved of nutrients and eventually dying.
Phylloxera in many ways also helps to tell the story of the wine industry in today’s, flat world. The parasite evolved in America and our vines in North America also evolved some protection against it. In Europe, the vines didn’t have any protections since the vines had never experienced the pest before.
When we originally brought vines to America, the cuttings came from France. After a few years, you started seeing the vines attacked and then destroyed by Phylloxera.
Vintners had an easy fix though. They planted American vines and then grafted on the French or international varietals that we all are familiar with today.
For most people, it seemed like a simple solution to an age old problem.
Of course, over time people started transporting an increasing number and variety of goods back and forth and eventually, Phylloxera found its way into the old world. It decimated all the vineyards which made the wine industry what it is today.
There are pockets of vines that are not grafted onto American or resistant rootstock, but they’re very small pockets and some of the most prized wines on the planet.
Phylloxera Into the Future
Some regions, like Chile have some natural protections against the pest. Desert tends to work the best and more locally to us, I’d expect that more than a few Arizona and New Mexico growers are likely going to advertise their “Traditional” rootstock options pretty soon.
Lastly, it’s important to note that some wineries are finding that by creating a more diverse farm, instead of the grape monoculture that we traditionally see today. Chateau St Michelle, Washington’s first and largest winery has a select set of vineyards that are set on traditional rootstock. They aren’t organic or biodynamic like many people assume they’d need to be, but instead they use traditional farming practices, like using a variety of crops as well as animals on the property. It seems simple, but in areas like Napa Valley when you’re paying $300k per acre or more for vineyard space, having some sheep and goats on site, might not seem as appealing.