September 20, 2013 7:05 pm

When the vines withered

Was it only a matter of time before the slopes of the Côte-d’Or were planted with sugarbeet?

A hundred and fifty years ago, a small-time wine grower and wine merchant in Roquemaure, north of Avignon, began to notice that his vines were withering. The leaves were turning prematurely yellow. Monsieur Borty gathered a harvest that year but the signs were not good. The malady – whatever it was – spread with devastating swiftness. Within a few years the majority of the vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon were affected.

Then the vines started languishing and dying across a wider area; the plague reached Austria and Portugal in 1871-1872, Catalonia in the mid-1870s, Italy in 1879. France’s proudest vineyards in Bordeaux and Burgundy held out for longer, but by the late 1880s they too were succumbing. The last redoubt to fall was Champagne, in summer 1890.

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Harry Eyres

Attempts to diagnose, and then treat, the affliction began almost as soon as it appeared. A Commission to Counter the New Malady of the Vine, which included the distinguished botanist Jules-Émile Planchon, was formed in 1868 and quite quickly identified the cause of the problem: an almost microscopic vine louse or aphid, later given the name phylloxera vastatrix, which fed on the roots of vines. But what was this pest, where had it come from and how could it be defeated?

Planchon in France and Charles Riley in the US came to the same conclusion: the louse or aphid was of American origin and had presumably been transported to Europe on the roots of imported experimental vines (Borty had planted some in Roquemaure). American vine roots seemed to be immune to its predations, while native European vines were not.

Not everyone accepted Planchon’s and Riley’s theories: Professor Victor Signoret, France’s most eminent entomologist, maintained that though the aphid might damage vines, the main cause of the malady was the climate.

For around 20 years a struggle raged. Many wondered if the era of European wine, which had flourished at least since the time of Ancient Greece, was finally over. Was it only a matter of time before the gravel banks of the Gironde and the slopes of the Côte-d’Or were planted with sugarbeet or potatoes, or grazed by sheep unaware they were standing on hallowed ground once known by the name of Lafite or Romanée-Conti? In the meantime, great suffering was visited on Europe’s wine growers. Many small proprietors whose vineyards were infected became casual labourers. Hundreds of thousands, especially from southern Italy, emigrated to the New World.

But the story of phylloxera had a happy ending, if not for those wine growers, then for the future of European wine. The story represents a triumph of science – of the patient, evidence-based work of botanists and entomologists, pitted against denialism, arrogance and, last but not least, vested interests. For many years a debate continued on the way to manage phylloxera, between advocates of chemical treatments (unsurprisingly these included chemical companies) and the proponents of replanting with American vines.

The chemical treatments, and other more radical schemes such as flooding vineyards, covering them with volcanic ash and even employing marching bands to drive out the aphids, proved ultimately ineffective, though they were defended with particular vehemence in Bordeaux and Burgundy, the proudest strongholds of French wine, where the idea of replanting with American vines was anathema. In the end a brilliant “third way” was found: grafting European vines on to resistant American rootstocks.

Should the story of phylloxera (well told by George Ordish in 1972 and Christy Campbell in 2004) induce complacency? Almost certainly not. For a start, the little louse never went away. A devastating new outbreak of phylloxera occurred in California in the late 1980s and 1990s; it turned out that the hybrid rootstock AxR1 advocated by the University of California at Davis was only partially resistant to the aphid.

Remember that all this devastation was caused to one plant – vitis vinifera – by one tiny bug. In the UK and in Europe more widely, pests today threaten several of our not very numerous tree species; ash dieback (chalara fraxinea) is probably the worst, with many experts predicting that more than 90 per cent of our ashes will eventually be affected, a disaster comparable to Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s. Meanwhile, horse chestnuts are afflicted by a leaf-miner moth, and oaks are threatened by acute oak decline.

What lessons should we learn? Phylloxera was probably caused by the unquarantined import of a few American vines on whose roots the live aphids had managed to survive. Modern neoliberal economics favours deregulation and the scrapping of “red tape”. But nature seems to have deeper laws than those of neoliberal economics.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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