Viticulture

Phylloxera Vastatrix “Devastator of Vines”

The world has faced its fair share of epidemics and pandemics. Whether inflicting pain and suffering in humans, wildlife or nature, this is definitely not a new phenomena. Therefore, we shouldn’t be too shocked by the Coronavirus outbreak. Bill Gates’ Ted Talk back in 2015 said it all. Microbes are proving to be ‘the modern killer’ we are currently facing and will continue to face in future. I sometimes think that all of our scientific advances in medicine and technology, while amazingly wonderful, have also lead to a complacency about the fragility of life because we have so many ways of curing and fixing a variety of health problems.

You’ve got a headache…there’s a pill for that.

You’ve broken a bone…there’s an x-ray for that.

You’ve got a heart problem…there’s a surgery for that.

Well, now we’re facing a problem we can’t simply remedy with medicine, technology or a simple procedure. Therefore, as a global community, we’re trying to find a cure before too many lives are lost.

So, by now, you’re probably wondering…what does this have to do with wine? Ironically…quite a lot!

In 1866 a vineyard owner in France’s Southern Rhone region was puzzled over a block of vines that had lost its leaves and eventually died over a rather short period of time. After two years’ time, the French government appointed officials to appoint researchers to study what appeared to be a disease, caused by tiny microscopic aphid-like bugs, that were spreading and devastating the roots of vitis vinifera vines. In 1875 after years of in-depth research, the French government officially named Phylloxera Vastatrix as an epidemic which was negatively affecting and killing vitis vinifera vines. Jules-Emile Planchon was the scientist credited with discovering this destructive bug. Phylloxera in Latin refers to insects that attack and harm the leaves and roots of plants, while Vastatrix means ‘devastator’ in Latin. Quite a lethal combination! The Insect Devastator of Vines! It sounds like a horror film. If only this was a movie and not reality. Phylloxera Vastatrix definitely lived up to its foreboding name! Sadly, as with most bugs, they had spread and were devastating vineyards throughout Europe. So the question remained…where did it come from?

The jury is still out on this, but most people agree that it came from contaminated American grape vines that had been brought to Europe during the mid 1800’s. While European grape vines, vitis vinifera, were being savaged to death by Phylloxera, surprisingly, the American vines were seemingly unaffected. This anomaly was eventually what saved European vitis vinifera vines, as French winegrowers Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille suggested grafting vitis vinifera vines onto Phylloxera-resistant American grape rootstock.

As some French winegrowers adopted the process of grafting their precious vitis vinifera onto American rootstock, many distrusted the new method and were quick to accuse French scientists with causing the Phylloxera outbreak. While the blame game continued, more and more winegrowers were realising that grafting was working and the need to save their vines overshadowed their desire to find the culprit. If it weren’t for grafting, then Phylloxera would have decimated vitis vinifera and could have possibly put an end to wines that we currently know and love.

The question remains…

Has anyone discovered a ‘cure’ for Phylloxera?

The answer…No! Whoever does will be one lucky (rich) guy or gal!!!

Despite being a problem for vitis vinifera vines, there are a few wine regions in the world that are untouched by this terrible bug. However, Western and Southern Australia, Tasmania, Chile and the Riesling area of Germany’s Mosel region are free of the bug. Argentina is relatively free, although the bug has been found there but is less able to thrive in the terroir.

Why do some areas stay Phylloxera free and others don’t?

The most common way that Phylloxera spreads is through vineyard equipment (which is often shared between growers due to the huge expense of these machines) and workers, who often move from one vineyard to another, which contaminates vineyards, unless proper precautions are in place. I know this to be the case in Oregon, where most vineyards are less than 40 years old. Most with self-rooted vines have now been replanted with grafted ones. Despite this, some vineyards are still clinging onto their ‘legacy’ vines, such as Bethel Heights Vineyard. Despite lower and lower fruit yield, they are determined to keep the vines until they just can’t produce anymore fruit. The reason…the older vines simply produce the most amazing fruit…thus culminating in fantastic and highly coveted wines!

Recently, Phylloxera was discovered in the Walla Walla AVA in Washington State. Simply mentioning the ‘Ph’ word causes vineyard owners and growers to tremble in their boots! Replanting an entire vineyard is a very costly and time consuming endeavour. The average immediate expense is $25,000/acre and the vines don’t produce wine-worthy fruit until year 4 or 5 after planting. Now that requires deep pockets and some serious patience!!

Despite all efforts to graft vines, decontaminate farming equipment and invest millions in a cure for these pesky little bugs, I personally believe that Phylloxera is with us for the foreseeable future. Vitis vinifera vines are already unable to survive in most wine growing regions of the world without an adopted rootstock.

What happens if Phylloxera suddenly mutates and begins savaging both vitis vinifera and American vines?

Well, folks…then we’re in trouble. Yet, it also makes me consider just how relevant this whole Phylloxera epidemic is to our current Coronavirus pandemic. It reminds me that life is so precious and so fragile.

As a final thought;

Share a bottle of your favourite wine with close friends and family while remembering to savour every last drop and enjoying every last laugh.

Life is short and so very precious!

Cheers!