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The Great Winemaking Crisis and the Louse that Caused it

by Staff Writer - A. Heinzman | June 29, 2011

Plant life is continually subjected to new and different diseases and pests. Since the development of agriculture, individuals have battled with optimizing plant growth while also fighting off debilitating diseases and pests. In some cases, pests and diseases threaten the ability for certain plants to sustain life and yield crops. These facts create challenges for all who are involved within the field of agriculture. Thankfully throughout the history of agriculture, countless individuals have studied and worked to solve the many problems encountered within agricultural endeavors. Nowhere is this more visible than in the Phylloxera crisis that nearly destroyed all winemaking vines of Europe in the 1860s.

Winemaking has always been a serious endeavor and a source of national importance & pride for France. As such, winemaking in France has always been world renowned for its quality. In addition to high quality wines, the wine industry of France also provides a major source of national revenue. For example, in the 1840s wine was responsible for one-sixth of France State revenues and was France's second largest export. Yet by the late 1800s, quality winemaking in France faced a catastrophe comparable to near extinction. A tiny sap sucking louse--eventually known as Phylloxera--was responsible for this catastrophe. The Phylloxera louse tested the intellect of the world's greatest botanists, scientists, politicians, and winemakers. Eventually the destruction of the vine was so dire that that France's Ministry of Agriculture set-up a prize reward for a solution to the Phylloxera problem. A testament to the seriousness of the Phylloxera problem can be seen in the prize amount of 300,000 gold francs in 1860 (worth over 800,000 in US Dollars today.)

The Phylloxera outbreak in Europe was caused by the introduction of American native vine varieties. During the 1800s, European botanists and viticulturists began to import and study newly discovered American vine varieties. Also around this time, a fungus disease known as oidium was threatening the wine industry of France. In a desperate search for a solution to oidium problem, scientists recognized that American grape varieties seemed to have a natural resistance to oidium. This promising discovery was overshadowed by the prescribed and successful treatment of sulfur dusting. For a five-year period a constant cloud of sulfur eclipsed the vineyards of France. By 1858 the oidium problem had abated. The nature of the sulfur solution had relegated the research concerning oidium and the American varieties to the back burner. Nevertheless, scientifically minded botanists and viticulturists continued experimenting with American grape varieties.

After the oidium problem had been successfully checked, winemaking in France entered what appeared to be a golden age. Dark clouds were on the horizon however. In 1862 a wine merchant by the name of Borty planted several rooted vines sent to him by a friend from the United States. Mr. Borty's plantings were located in the small town of Roquemaure and prospered in the local climate. The following year in the nearby village of Pujaut, Vitis vinifera vines began to shrivel and die. In 1864 Borty's own plantings of Vitis vinifera varieties were dying while the American varieties were strong and healthy. From this point, the problem spread to other areas of the Rhone and created much confusion and alarm for the local vintners. Upon examining the root structure of dead vines, conditions of decay were observed. At this point the problem continued to spread with no explanation of the cause.

As anxious vintners contacted government ministries, officials began to set-up investigative commissions to determine the state of the problem being communicated by the wine growers. In the locale of the Herault, a team of botanists had begun the work of examining vineyards afflicted with vines dying from root decay. It was during this time that a botanist known as Jules-Emile Planchon discovered yellowish clumps of insects on healthy roots. At this point the cause of the root decay had been discovered, but many questions still remained as to what these yellow insects were and where they came from.

Planchon had described the tiny insects as being closely related to aphids with notable differences in that the insects were wingless. In an official report to the Academy of Sciences in Paris on 1868, Planchon stated that the insect was a new genus known as Rhizaphis vastatrix or a root aphid devastator. From this point forward, additional botanists began to experience this new root louse. In 1869 Oxford professor J.O. Westwood recognized that insects afflicting vine leafs with galls matched Planchon's descriptions and concluded that the insect belonged to the genus Phylloxera. Also, in 1869 the botanist Jules Lichtenstein realized that the yellow insects found at Sorgues and La Tourette matched descriptions found in a report from the Agricultural Society of New York. Based on this information, Lichtenstein deduced that the louse had originated from America. Meanwhile another botanist was making connections concerning the yellow insect. After reading Professor Westwood's report, Missouri State entomologist Charles Riley realized that he had encountered a similar insect in 1866. In 1869 Riley contacted Lichtenstein and proposed that the insect was a species of the oak tree pest Phylloxera quercus. Between various botanists, questions were being answered concerning the mysterious yellow insects. However, official individuals were not convinced that the yellow insect was the cause of the problem and were also not convinced of the yellow insect's origin.

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By 1869 botanists studying the Phylloxera louse had little doubt that the small yellow insect was responsible for the unexplained mass deaths of healthy Vitis vinifera vines. However, many officials--in positions far removed from actual field conditions--were in a state of denial. This can be seen in Professor Victor Signoret's--who was the foremost entomologist in France--assessment of the problem. Professor Signoret viewed the cause of the devastation as being drought, poor soil quality and climate. The presence of the aphids was simply an after effect of these conditions. The existence of denial at an official level contributed to a delay in finding a solution to the Phylloxera problem.

By 1871 Planchon had little doubt that Phylloxera had come from America. Botanists by this time had recognized that Darwin's theories of natural selection had resulted in American grape species acquiring a natural immunity to Phylloxera. This was demonstrated in 1874 when Planchon discovered Phylloxera was introduced to France by way of the wine merchant Borty's garden at Roquemaure. By this time botanists had also made significant discoveries into the complex and somewhat lengthy lifecycle of Phylloxera.

Throughout the thirty-year span of the Phylloxera epidemic, Phylloxera itself proved to be a tricky adversary. Studying and understanding the life cycle of the insect as well as reviewing the properties found in other grape varieties was extremely important. Equally important were the acceptance of the research by all parties and the selection of a solution. With a disaster of this magnitude, individuals had naturally formed their own opinions concerning research and solutions. These conflicting opinions initially resulted in delays to a solution. Eventually all parties recognized the Phylloxera louse as the cause of the Vitis vinifera destruction. The next step required all involved parties to work toward developing a practical solution.

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