The Great Wine Blight

The Columbian Exchange is a much discussed phenomenon, but it can have had few more surprising consequences than the near total destruction of European wine production in the 19th century.

The cause was phylloxera, a microscopic yellow aphid native to the eastern coast of the United States, that feeds exclusively on the roots of grapevines.

First reported in England in 1863, by entomologist John Obadiah Westwood, it quickly spread into France, where it first appeared in 1867 – in the southern Rhone, then around Montpellier, and then in the Languedoc. It reached Bordeaux in 1869.

Around 6.2m acres of vineyards were destroyed in France alone; French wine production fell from 84.5 million hectolitres in 1875 to 23.4 million in 1889. Some thought the blight was God’s punishment for sin; folk remedies were proposed, including burying a live toad under the affected vine to draw the poison.

The search for a more practical solution was led by botanist Jules Émile Planchon. Two schools of thought emerged: one, a chemical treatment primarily comprising carbon bisulphide; the other, grafting European vines onto already resistant American root stock.

The latter idea was anathema to many. Burgundy, where the grafting of American vines was forbidden until 1887, was particularly hostile. When one vineyard in Meursault, in the Côte d’Or at the heart of Burgundy, was found to be infected in July 1878, the authorities demanded the destruction of its vines to stop the spread. The resulting standoff was only resolved when the army was sent in.

But it was grafting that proved the most durable answer to the problem, and the US, where the blight originated, came to France’s rescue. Two states in particular, Missouri and Texas led the way in providing new vine stocks. Texan viticulturist TV Munson became only the second American to receive the Legion d’Honneur, after Thomas Edison, for his efforts.

Today, there are vanishingly few vineyards left in Europe which have been untainted by phylloxera. Bollinger, for instance, has two small plots which never succumbed, the Clos Saint-Jacques and Chaudes Terres. A third vineyard, Croix Rouge, was lost as recently as 2004. (Bottles are rare; prices begin at a little over £900.) Colares in Portugal, also tiny, is another survivor.

Typically, where vines have resisted the blight and remain ungrafted it is due to unusual soil conditions. The coastal Colares is exceptionally sandy, for instance; elsewhere volcanic soils have proved an effective barrier.

Planchon died on 1 April 1888. His legacy is in almost every glass of European wine you drink.

This is an extended version of a piece first appeared in the April 2022 issue of History Today. The illustration is an Edward Linley Sambourne Punch cartoon from 1890 captioned: “The phylloxera, a true gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines.” (Source: Wikimedia.)

Like this? You can read more of Mathew’s History Today Months Past pieces here.

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