Dying on the Vine : How Phylloxera Transformed Wine. By George Gale.
University California Press; $ 39.95.
Imagine sitting down with a glass of wine made from Clinton or Noah rather than Cabarnet Savignon or Chardonnay. This is less far-fetched than it sounds. As recently as 1963, France alone had more than 40,000 acres of such little known American grapes, patches of which are still planted in the Vendée and Cévennes.
These varieties are a reminder of the battle against phylloxera, a small, root-munching aphid that did incalculable damage to the wine business in the last 35 years of the 19th century. What George Gale, a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, calls “the worst of all known invasive species disasters” swept across the viticultural landscape like a biblical plague. It destroyed vineyards from Rioja to Rheingau, Stellenbosch to Sicily. With good reason Jules-Emile Planchon, the French botanist who helped to subdue the insect, dubbed it phylloxera vastarix.
The story of phylloxera’s impact-it was shipped inadvertently on vine cuttings from its native United States to the Southern Rhone Valley-and the protracted race to find a cure has been told before, most notably by an entomologist named George Ordish, “The Great Wine Blight”, 1987 and a journalist Christy Campbell, “Phylloxera”, 2004.
Gale brings fresh insights based on material from the archives of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Agronomie in Montpellier and the University of California Davis (uc Davis). Mr. Gale’s is an American perspective, incisive on the development of California’s wine industry and the differences between the country’s wild grape species: Vitis aestivalis, berlandieri, labrusca, riparia and rupestris.
In Europe, Gale’s research is no less assiduous. His coverage of the war between the largely Parisian scientific establishment, which believed that phylloxera was the effect, rather than the cause, of the devastation, and the so-called Américainistes of Montpellier and Bordeaux, who believed the opposite, is commendably detailed. The squabbling between the two sides stretched on into the 1880’s, delaying the search for a solution.
Various remedies were proposed: flooding, planting on sandy soils and the use of carbon disulphide (a flammable, toxic chemical that was costly as well as tricky to apply). Growers then tried planting lower-quality American grapes, including Clinton and Noah, before switching, finally, to grafted vines combining phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks with European scions. This is still the practise in most of the world’s vineyards today.
The solution has already failed once. Depending on your point of view, Phylloxera redux, the aphid’s second, exclusively Californian coming, was an object lesson in Darwinian evolution or scientific stupidity. uc Davis recommended a rootstock called Axri during the West Coast planting boom of the 1970’s because it was “vigorous” and “productive”, despite warnings that it was unsafe. A mutated “biotype B” insect emerged in Napa Valley in 1980 and did an estimated $6 billion of damage before wide-scale uprooting, burning and replanting was completed in 1995. As in the 19th century, the devastation had a thin silver lining, allowing producers to plant better clones of higher-quality grapes, but that was scant consolation.
And what of the future? Mr. Gale argues persuasively that the fight continues between this “ever-resourceful enemy” and “our closest plant friend, the grape”.
There is no phylloxera (yet) in Chile or South Australia, but quarantine and constant vigilance are the price. What the French called la nouvelle maladie de la vigne (the new vine disease) back in the 1860’s remains a fearsome adversary.