The End of Wine?

By Posted on Aug 27 2009 | By

Civil WarIn 1862, as the tragedy of the American Civil War unfolded, an invasion of European vineyards began. In this instance, it was an army the United States had unwittingly launched against wine lovers. The resulting conflict came within a grape leaf of destroying wine worldwide.

Could it happen again? Perhaps.

Our story begins in New York State where an amateur horticulturalist sent his friend, Monsieur Borty, a wine merchant in southern France, a case of native grapevines. This was an era of intense interest in Europe in importing novel and exotic plants from around the world. The Victorian scientific community was being swept up in the excitement of reproducing these plants for both scientific and commercial purposes. The advent of steamship travel meant that flora could be speedily shipped to the continent without fear of the cargo dying in transit.

Merchant Borty was quite pleased with his gift from America and promptly planted the vines in his small vineyard. Forebodingly though, within two years, vines in the surrounding southern Rhone Valley began to wither and die. Our Frenchman would go down in history as almost precipitating the demise of wine. Not a nice legacy.



So what was this invading horde and why were they so powerful? It was a tiny root-sucking aphid known as Phylloxera. And billions of them quickly began attacking the roots of the Vitis vinifera wine species, which produces ninety-nine percent of the world’s wine, then and now.

The success of the microscopic-size insect was due to the vulnerability of the European vines. Over eons, the little critter had been sucking on the roots of indigenous American grapevines with minimal damage. As is often the case in natural selection, our vines had slowly thrown up a defensive shield that protected them from destruction by the root muncher. In fact, smart parasites don’t often kill their hosts—it’s not beneficial for their kids’ future. Rather, the host adopts a way to live with its nemesis and the parasite doesn’t push the relationship to a breaking point.

When the aphid landed on French soil, however, it couldn’t resist the succulent—and defenseless—grape vines; so tasty were their roots it wouldn’t stop eating till it killed the host. And it killed with a vengeance. By 1890, vineyards throughout the wine-growing world were nearly wiped out. Wine growers panicked and employed every known and untried treatment to stop the wholesale slaughter of their vines. These actions ranged from the scientific approach of trying to find a natural enemy of the Phylloxera, to the ridiculous treatment of releasing schoolboys from their classes twice daily to urinate over the vines. Yep, they were that desperate.

A more horrific, but analogous, catastrophe occurred when Europeans landed in the Americas and infected the Indians with smallpox and other diseases. It is estimated tens of millions of Native Americans were killed by microbes for which they had no natural resistance.

While the French government offered huge financial rewards for anyone who could defeat the grape plague, for years no satisfactory solution was forthcoming. Then, in a bit of brilliant deduction, it occurred to some scientists that grafting their precious vines onto American rootstock might afford protection from the aphid. And it worked. Nonetheless, a great debate broke out between those pinning their hopes on a chemical based defeat of the pest and those who believed grafting was the answer.

A major obstacle to wide spread grafting was the inconceivable idea that the elite, delicate and delicious European vines would be joined at the hip, so to speak, with the rustic and inferior American vines. The general attitude was that decent wine could not be produced through such a marriage. Yet, the idea slowly took hold—-literally—and it was eventually acknowledged that wine equal to that made before the devastation could be created through grafting.

America had caused the blight, and in an ironic twist, had solved the crisis.

grapes1Today, almost all vines worldwide are grafted on to selected American rootstock to safely propagate the delicate Vitis vinifera grape. Only Chile and southern Australia are still growing wine grapes on original stock. In the case of Chile, it’s because the Andes mountain range on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west, coupled with a loamy soil, have held the aphid at bay. In Australia, strict quarantine laws snatch the passports of any unwanted aphids considering a visit to their countryside.

So does this success story ensure the permanent health of our beloved wine grapes? Not necessarily. No cure, other than grafting, has ever been found to eliminate the threat. One hundred and forty–seven years after the devastation in Europe began Phylloxera still lurks in vineyards. Time and evolution could see a resurgence of the dreaded pest.

One example of how such a scenario could again unfold occurred in the late 1980s in California. During the 1960s and ‘70s, the state’s surging wine industry had widely planted their grapes on a rootstock dubbed AXR#1—a hybrid cross between American and vinifera species. Experts had assured vineyard managers that it was totally resistant to the aphid’s attack. Slowly, however, in classic Darwinian fashion, one vineyard after another began to succumb to a new biotype of the pest. The resulting damage cost the industry millions of dollars to tear out the vines and replant with trusted resistant rootstock.

Today, no significant research is underway to examine the complicated issues of defeating Phylloxera permanently. Since resistant rootstock safely produces wine, the incentive to find a solution is not great. But, given the strong likelihood that the aphid is currently morphing into yet another, stronger vine pest, now would seem to be the time to devote resources to defeating the scourge.

wine-glass51If the industry chooses not to act, could it mean the end of the classic varietals someday? That’s somewhat remote, but why even consider the possibility. After all, can you imagine enjoying a glass of musky scuppernong with your filet mignon? Neither can I.



Published August 27, 2009 in the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES