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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses the history of phylloxera, the vine- destroying bug mentioned in many previous “Wine 101” episodes. Beavers explains why phylloxera has been a headache for winemakers throughout history, how it plagued Europe, and why it has had a lasting impact globally.
However, there was a silver lining. Listeners will learn about the technique of grafting, which ultimately became the solution for combating phylloxera. Tune in to learn more about phylloxera.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and cold soup? How do we feel about that?
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 21 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers, and I am the tastings director of VinePair. Hi!
This is it, people. Here we are. I’ve been mentioning it for a long time, literally since early in the first season. Phylloxera: We are here. It’s gross. Get ready.
We have been building and building to this episode, haven’t we, wine lovers? If you’ve been listening since Season 1, you know that as we talk about wine, no matter where in the world we’re talking about it, at some point in history, the word phylloxera comes into play. I keep saying I’m going to get to it, I’m going to get to it, and here we are. Now, I’m not really sure what your threshold is to grossness and to squeamishness. I don’t know how gross this is going to be, but for me, it’s gross. This phylloxera thing, this aphid, this louse, this bug, this destroyer of vines is crazy, and it’s a little bit gross. Like aliens, gross. Like any horror sci-fi movie with something like pus coming out, I don’t know. Just know that this is going to be a little bit nuts. Maybe it won’t gross you out. It grosses me out, though.
At the beginning of this podcast, Season 1, I tried to get across the challenges that winemakers and vine growers have in the vineyard because wine, more than any other alcoholic drink, is tied to nature. It’s at the mercy of nature, and those challenges are real. We talk about wind and rain. We talk about deer, birds, fungus, and bacteria. However, pests and insects are some of the most annoying and absolutely destructive things that can happen in a vineyard because they’re very small. There’s a lot of them, and it’s hard to get under control. There have been so many things attempted, developed, tried, and innovated to help combat the pest situation in vineyards, from chemical pesticides to something called biological pest control, which introduces a predator into a pest population to control it. Just a little side note: This method was developed by a guy named C.V. Riley from Missouri. He is a big deal in the phylloxera story. We’ll get to him.
Yet, no matter what we do, these pests will always have a presence in the vineyards around the world. No matter what, no matter where. It depends on the climate in the region that will give that vine grower or winemaker the challenge. What group of pests do they have to deal with? Beetles, moths, mites, leafhoppers, grasshoppers, cutworms, western grapeleaf skeletonizer. Yeah, that’s the name of an insect. It sounds pretty destructive. Then more innocuous, something called a ladybird bug. That could be destructive as well. And I don’t know about you, but when I first was learning about wine, I started learning about the pest thing. It was hard for me to wrap my head around because you don’t see it happening. It’s very hard to understand.
No matter if it’s a deer or fungus or a bug or a weather event, the thing to think about is it’s just not destroying the vine right away, but what these things do is they cut into a vines morphology — the makeup of the vine, whether it’s the roots of the stem, the trunk or the leaf or the grape or whatever. This inhibits the ability of the vine to grow at a regular pace, stopping it in its tracks in certain areas. That, in turn, creates a domino effect sometimes and that will just spiral this vine into basically a death spiral or a sickness spiral. What winemakers have to do is always make sure whatever is interfering or going into that vineyard is not destroying their crop, their money, their bottom line, their livelihood. Something as small as the delay of bud break due to an insect infection can ruin an entire vintage or some of a vintage.
These little delays in the way a vine grows, which we went over in the first couple of episodes in the first season, can mess the whole thing up. The thing is, sometimes it takes a while for our human eyes to notice what’s going on down deep. By the time we notice it, it might be too late. And no other pest, no other insect bug, no other aphid has been more destructive to wine than Phylloxera vastatrix, otherwise known as “Phylloxera the Destroyer”.
Phylloxera, unlike other pests out there, attacks only the grapevine. The fact that its entire life cycle revolves around one type of plant actually increases its destructiveness. It’s barely visible to the human eye, this little aphid or sap-sucking insect (that’s what aphid means). The female, even though she’s bright yellow, is about 0.039 inches long. Very small. They are mostly on the roots of vines. The female lumbers around the root system, carrying a sack of a mass of eggs that just cling to her as she wobbles around and eats the sap from vines, feeding her brood. She then injects saliva into a root or into a leaf. That saliva, in turn, forms something called a gull, which is a little pustule that shows up. In there, she puts her larvae. The larvae then feed off that injection, that cut in the leaf or in the root. This happens in the spring. Throughout the summer, phylloxera can produce four to seven generations, with each generation producing a significant amount of females that are capable of laying eggs. You see where this is going? It’s death by a thousand cuts, if you will.
All these little aphids are feeding off the root system of a vine — hundreds of them with all these little cuts, exposing the vine to bacteria and fungi. Each of these gulls, when they burst open, burst open with the larvae that are now called crawlers. And they crawl all over the root system, eating it, feeding off the sap. There are so many of them that they sometimes make their way up the trunk and into the actual vine itself onto the leaves. That’s when wind and humans distribute the phylloxera to other parts of the vineyard for new infections. They are just crawling, existing, surviving, doing their thing, and destroying a vine.
If they get up above the soil, the wind and humans spread it around. At least phylloxera doesn’t have wings. Oh, wait. In the more humid wine-growing regions of the world, a phylloxera hatchling can become a nymph and form wings. A female nymph will then lay what’s called a winter egg. I know, this is crazy. Now, that will develop into a stem-mother who will in turn lay eggs into a gull. It just keeps on going. The stem-mother is called a fundatrix. I know these words are a little bit weird. Fundatrix and vastatrix. Well, the “trix” is an old English, outdated, no-longer-used suffix for feminine adjectives. Back then, you would have an actor and an actrix. Now, it’s actor, actress, or just an actor.
Anyways, the fundatrix would be the founding mother, and then the vastatrix would be the female destroyer, I think. Of course, this fundatrix or stem-mother will start the lifecycle all over again, so you’re seeing how intense this is. What’s messed up is, as this is happening, we’re not seeing it. Sometimes, it takes a winemaker or a winegrower five vintages to see the destruction that this little aphid is doing to their crop. In the 19th century, in France specifically, winemakers and vine growers were just watching their vineyards die in front of them and had no idea what was wrong. You might remember from the Zinfandel episode and a lot of the episodes about the history of wine — especially the United States — you’ll notice that in the 19th century, there was a lot of exchange of agriculture between Europe and the new United States. A lot of that agriculture was vines.
Vines are very important to Europe. It was a big deal to have the vine thing happening here in the United States. We’ve talked a lot about that. Also, the Europeans were very curious about the vines that were growing in the United States. The United States, as we know, has their own native vines. Those vines were going mostly to southern France. In 1863, reports started coming out of southern France that a very odd, new, unknown disease was affecting the vines. A few years later, a committee was formed, and an investigation was done in the Rhône Valley area of France. Phylloxera was finally identified, and this is where it gets the name Phylloxera vastatrix.
A study was done, a report was put out for the findings to the public, and the public basically just ignored it. I don’t think they thought it was that bad. They’re watching some bad stuff happening in their vineyards and don’t even know what’s about to happen. They read the scientific findings, and they said, “You know what, it is probably just overproduction, or it is probably just cold weather, or it could be just weakening vines due to over-vegetative production. Or maybe it’s just soil exhaustion, or it could be God’s wrath at contemporary vices.” This is the list of stuff I found that was countering the science that was coming out of that report. I don’t know if it’s a result of the willful ignorance of that or what, but from 1875 to 1889, French wine production fell from a peak of a little under 85 million hectoliters, to a little under 24 million hectoliters.
As it got worse and all the alternate theories were debunked, desperation kicked in. The committee that was formed initially decided to offer 30,000 francs to the person that can remedy what was going on because it was starting to take over. Vine growers were literally watching their crops die in front of them and had no way of stopping it. Imagine what that must be like, it’s crazy. Over a thousand treatment ideas or potential remedies were sent in and evaluated. Every single one was individually evaluated, and they got really weird. Burying a live toad in the vineyard to draw out the poison, irrigating the vines with white wine. That’s just weird. There were entries coming from all over the world, like Singapore and Denmark, and nothing worked. Even commercial attempts of flooding the vineyards didn’t work. I mean, it would work for a little bit, but you had to constantly flood your vineyards. What if you weren’t near a water source? You couldn’t flood your vineyards, so something had to work.
A French scientist by the name of J.E. Planchon witnesses something called grafting, where you take a rootstock from one plant, and you graft it onto another plant. He sees this as an opportunity to maybe combat this phylloxera thing. He brought it up at the committee, and the committee said that is not it. I don’t know what is up with these guys. If you thought grafting was the solution for phylloxera at the time in France, you were called an Americanist, because the Americans were doing a lot of grafting. Well, Planchon decided to do this, and the first thing he had to do was identify the thing that’s doing the thing, right?
He ends up going to the United States. He collaborates with C.V Riley, who I mentioned at the beginning of this episode at the University of Missouri. He is a state entomologist, which means he studies insects. He confirms the bug that they’re calling phylloxera in Europe is identical to a bug that’s indigenous to the United States. With the knowledge of this particular bug, C.V. Riley actually suggests grafting to combat it. He comes back and reports that. Then, the head of the committee that was initially formed to get this thing nipped in the bud, if you will, goes to the United States, but he goes to Texas because now that they found out what it was, they needed to figure out how to graft.
Grafting was gaining in popularity as an idea of how to get rid of this thing. The head of this committee, who is the guy who actually debunked all the previous attempts to get this thing under control, goes to Texas and he collaborates with T.V. Munson. Munson was a Texan, ampelographer, nurseryman, and breeder. He researched plants, and he knew all of the vitis that were native to the United States. He guided this Frenchman through all of the vitis from the U.S., showing him the ones that were the most resistant to phylloxera.
Phylloxera is an American aphid, and the American grapevines, whatever species, evolved with phylloxera and created a resistance to phylloxera. There are some of these vines that, when the phylloxera cuts into them or injects the saliva, it has another layer of skin underneath it to protect from anything. What’s happening is all that fungus and bacteria are trying to get in, but they won’t allow it. If you take the rootstock of an American vine, and you graft it onto a European vine, you now have a phylloxera-resistant grapevine.
I know it sounds weird, but the vine is going to grow a Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s not going to grow some weird hybrid. Grafting does not affect the grape. It only affects the place where it’s being grafted. What happens is you take the two pieces of wood, knock them together, wrap them with tape, and they heal each other. They end up morphing into each other, and that becomes one big vine. Now, none of this happened overnight. The grafting situation started, but it was a delayed start because phylloxera’s damage doesn’t show up until things get really bad. By the time you see it, it’s really bad.
In 1873, it entered Cali. Portugal and Turkey in 1871. Switzerland in 1874. Italy in 1875. Greece, 1898. It took a while, but this thing almost destroyed the entire European wine-growing industry. 85 percent of European vines were destroyed while trying to figure out how to combat phylloxera. 6.2 million acres in France alone were destroyed because of phylloxera, but grafting is the norm now. In 1990, a study was done, and 85 percent of the world’s vines were grafted on American rootstock. We can only imagine where it’s at now.
There are places like Chile where phylloxera was never a problem because Chile received European vines well before phylloxera came from the United States and made its way into Europe. Also, phylloxera does not like sandy soil, so if you have a wine region in a sandy soil area or just a vineyard with sandy soil around a more fertile area, there’s a good chance you’re not going to get phylloxera because of that. However, that is not the norm.
If you hear somebody say, “Oh, this wine is pre-phylloxera vines,” that means somewhere, wherever that wine is from in the world, phylloxera never ravaged that area. There’s a whole debate over pre-phylloxera versus phylloxera vines. Are they different? Whatever. It doesn’t matter, guys. We’re here to enjoy wine. If you want to debate whether wine is different now or then, OK. But we’re drinking wine now in 2021, and we want to enjoy it. Am I right?
That’s the lowdown on Phylloxera, and just so you know, it’s not gone. Phylloxera is still around. This remedy is just to combat phylloxera, not to get rid of phylloxera. That’s also really intense. I just hope that this episode gives you an inkling into how much of a challenge it is for winemakers to do what they do. We talked a lot about that in the first couple of episodes of the first season, but phylloxera was a big one. There’s a lot of them out there, but this was the biggest international global effort to fix the wine industry that was so damaged.
I am going to say this right now, and not really sure how it’s going to land. But if you notice when we talk about the history of wine, especially in Europe, the 1980s is usually the decade where things start to turn around for wine-growing regions. They come out of the past and into the future, and phylloxera was a big part of that. Phylloxera devastated so many vineyards in Europe that it took years for these countries to get back on track. Even in the New World, in New Zealand, we talked about New Zealand where they just went ahead and planted hybrids. In the 1980s, everything started to change a little bit.
But that’s how much of an impact this bug had on the wine industry. OK, now you know about phylloxera. Hopefully, I didn’t gross you out too much. Let’s talk next week, what do you say?
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.