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The Solution to the Phylloxera Problem

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

Phylloxera today is a well-documented insect and controllable pest found within the agricultural area of viticulture. In the late 1800s, Phylloxera was something new and not very well understood. As Phylloxera threatened to destroy much of the world's ability to produce quality wine, scientists worked tirelessly to find a solution to the Phylloxera problem. Out of all wine producing regions, France was the hardest hit loosing 1,000,000 hectares of vineyards by 1884. A solution to the Phylloxera problem had to be found or France's wine industry would face almost certain ruin.

Thanks to the research of various scientists, the causes of dying vines had been determined. By the mid 1870s it was generally understood that the mass death of Vitis vinifera vines was attributed to a tiny insect known as Phylloxera. Prior to this, theories ranged of vines dying from soil problems, climate problems, divine intervention as well as superstition. With the problem being properly diagnosed, a solution could be found and implemented.

On August 29, 1873 Professor Jules-Emile Planchon landed in New York harbor and met his colleague, Charles Riley. Professor Planchon's trip to the United States had been arranged to gain insight into American grape varieties and to determine which varieties had the most resistance to Phylloxera. The itinerary of the trip was extensive. Planchon was to have a tour of winemaking locales before meeting back up with Riley in St. Louis. Many positive events came out of Planchon's visit but perhaps most notably were: the fact that Planchon observed successful vinifera grafting onto American rootstock, that Planchon further studied the life cycle of Phylloxera and that Planchon gained insight into wines produced from Native American varieties. Each of these events would prove useful in the solution to the Phylloxera problem.

By the mid 1870s it was universally accepted that the tiny louse insects known as Phylloxera were the cause of the mass death gripping the vineyards of France. The solution to the problem was created within an atmosphere almost as tedious as the environment created by Phylloxera itself. Solutions ranged from the scientific to the spiritual. Some solutions prescribed dousing the ground with holy water or even burying a live toad under the grape vine. Eventually two philosophies emerged. One solution focused on chemical insecticides to control the Phylloxera louse while the other focused on exclusively using Phylloxera resistant American varieties to produce wine.

As had been done with the oidium problem in the 1850s, France turned to combating Phylloxera by the use of chemical pesticides. From the research work of brandy makers, it was discovered that the chemical of potassium carbonate was an effective insecticide against Phylloxera. This research led the official solution to the Phylloxera problem as chemical. A bureaucracy was established concerning the implementation as well as the operating procedures for the new pesticides. The chemical solution was lobbied heavily by those opposed to the native American variety approach. Regardless of the lobbing for the chemical approach, over time the chemical solution proved to be ineffective. Pesticides slowed the spread of Phylloxera but did not remove the pest from infected land. The chemical approach was also cost prohibitive, the chemicals and personnel resources were very expensive.

Advocates of using Native American grape varieties argued that Native American grape varieties would produce high quality wines similar to the Vitis vinifera varieties that were dying. Many individuals within France were convinced that Native American varieties could not be used to produce quality wines typically made using vinifera. They were of course correct in their assumption. The Native American wines left a foxy attribute to the wine that was unappealing for almost all wine drinkers in France (a fact that even professor Planchon admitted.) Also, because the Phylloxera epidemic had been created by a large influx of Native American varieties, officials were reluctant to open the floodgates for fear of further contamination of the remaining wine areas in France.

There were two subsets concerning the use of Native American varieties. The first subset was the fact that some vintners within France had successfully grafted Vitis vinifera onto American rootstock and were thus growing a vine that had the attributes of vinifera with the Phylloxera resistant properties of the Native American varieties. This practice met with extreme criticism as most individuals felt that this approach resulted in a grape that was not pure vinifera and therefore could never make a quality wine. The second subset was proposed by professor Pierre-Marie Alexis Millardet and focused on creating hybrid crosses between vinifera and the Native American varieties. In the 1880s Millardet focused on cross breeding hybrids. His goal was to create hybrids that would contain the resistances found in Native American varieties without the foxy attributes of Native American varieties. Ultimately the efforts of Millardet to create a hybrid capable of high quality wine production failed. However the research put into of Millardet's hybrids proved useful for the eventual solution of grafting Vitis vinifera onto American rootstock.

Things changed in a big way concerning the accepted solution to the Phylloxera problem. In the late summer of 1881--at the grand International Phylloxera Conference--a motion was introduced and passed that moved government subsidies from chemicals to native American vines. Also at this conference were bottlings of wine produced from vinifera grafted to Native American rootstock. In a review from P.A. Labrune, the wine was found to still present its original character. However, the jury reviewing these grafted wines concluded that they could not judge the wines formally for a number of superficial reasons. In the end a formal review was not required. The solution to the Phylloxera problem could easily be seen with respect to developing a wine grafting rootstock program.

Why wine propagation through a rootstock program took so long to develop is a topic for a different article. The bottom line concerning Phylloxera is that a rootstock program was developed in France and this rootstock program led to the defeat of the Phylloxera problem. A rootstock program for propagation involves grafting a scion from one plant onto the root of another. In this application both plants retain their original characteristics while benefiting from the properties of each other. For example, the selection of a Phylloxera resistant rootstock allows a scion of vinifera to have roots that are Phylloxera resistant with grapes that retain vinifera qualities. Qualities between the scion and the rootstock are not exchanged. It is important to realize that a rootstock program is not the same as developing hybrid varieties. Hybrid varieties are however important as some hybrid varieties are used as rootstock with Vitis vinifera. From the catastrophic beginnings of the Phylloxera epidemic, rootstock research continued until the Phylloxera problem had been checked. Acceptance of the rootstock method was slow as some individuals felt that the rootstock solution created an inferior grape. Over the course of time, vinifera grapes once again grew abundantly in the vineyards of France. Acceptance of the rootstock solution prevailed delivering winemaking's fate as a success rather than an almost certain demise.

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