The wine palate
There are few stories in wine that have the drama, influence, power, and immense significance than that of the phylloxera louse, a tiny aphid that can barely be seen with the naked eye.
The introduction of this insect to Europe has been a landmark in the history of wine, by which timelines are written pre- and post-phylloxera. The story begins around the turn of the 19th century when the first European vines were planted in the New World.
To understand the story of phylloxera there are first a few key words to get out of the way.
The story has two major players involved. Vitis labrusca and vitis vinefera are two strains of vines. The former is native to the Americas and are used mostly for things like grape juice and table grapes. They come in the form of Norton grapes, Delaware grapes, Concord grapes, and many more.
When wine is made from them they tend to be bitter and "foxy." Vitis vinefera is the strain that carries all of the wine grapes that you are familiar with such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and so on.
There are many important distinctions between these two strains, but the one that applies most directly to phylloxera is their rootstocks. While labrusca rootstock is thick and sturdy, equipped for harsher weather conditions and larger vines, the vinefera strain is fed by a more delicate and fragile root structure.
When the Americans were reveling in the glory of a new-found freedom and developing industry with every step forward, wine became a focus.
The attempts to make wine from the vines that were growing naturally throughout the Northeast did not end up well. They just couldn’t reproduce the great wines of Europe with the labrusca grapes. They then began to experiment with vinefera vines. In 1798 the "First Vineyard" was planted in Kentucky with vinefera vines. In only two years the vines began to lose there leaves and die.
Repeated attempts over the next few decades proved equally fruitless and it seemed that great wine would never be made in America.
In a final attempt to make drinkable wine out of labrusca vines, America began sending samples to France to see what they could do with these vines. With transportation technology advancing with the first steam-powered crossing of the Atlantic in 1838 in only 15 days, shipping fresh and living rootstock became efficient and the vines were able to arrive in Europe in great shape.
Soon after vineyards around Montpellier started to die and imports of American vines continued to increase. The imported vines carried with them a louse that lived in harmony on the sturdy American vine, but had a horribly destructive effect on the thinner and more delicate European strains.
It spread like a plague. By 1870 it had spread to Bordeaux and the French government offered a 30,000 francs reward to anyone that could come up with a solution to the thing that was destroying their most prized possession. People tried sulfur, which killed the vines anyway. People burned and uprooted crops, but the disease kept on spreading. Outbreaks were happening in Portugal and soon in Germany, Spain, and then Italy. In 1874 the reward was raised to 300,000 francs.
By the end of the 19th century virtually all of France’s wine regions had reported outbreaks and vineyards were dying left and right. In 1903 there were major scandals exposed when winemakers were falsely labeling wines as Bordeaux because they couldn’t get grapes to grow in the most classic region in the world. It seemed like it was the end of wine.
After all the burning, pesticides, uprooting, and lying it was discovered that one could graft labrusca rootstock onto vinefera vines and the grapes could grow healthy and strong. Slowly the wines of France began to come back. Still today the vines in Europe all have American rootstock.
There is irony there. Even with all of our technology, regions experience phylloxera outbreaks and we spend millions each year trying to track and isolate them. So next time you read about the great Chilean wines that have been preserved as pure vinefera, you will realize what a huge accomplishment that really is.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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