Is Phylloxera Still a Problem?

In the course of the wine-loving journey of everyone there are mysterious references to the phylloxera. What exactly is it, why is it a significant and what is the legacy of phylloxera?

Phylloxera is an insect that resembles an aphid (a louse) which feeds on the grapevine’s roots, destroying the grapevine. The pest moved across Eastern North America to Europe and destroyed vineyards by the latter part of the 1800s. The only method of prevention that is known is to transplant resistant to phylloxera American roots of grapevine on European vines (aka Vitis Vinifera – e.g., Merlot, Chardonnay and so on.). Although we have known about the prevention for over 100 years, the phylloxera was a major issue for the grape growers in California until the 1980s.

Grapevine Phylloxera: The Devastatrix

Phylloxera (pronounced the sound of fell-OXera) is tiny louse which goes through a long and intricate lifecycle on grapevines. It’s a species that is found on indigenous grapevines that grow in the eastern region of the North American continent, phylloxera and the specific vines grew through millennia of synbiotic relationship.

Things became interesting about 150 years ago, when botanists unknowingly transported phylloxera across Europe, Australia, and even to the western US during the late 1800s. The idea of sharing exotic plants with friends and relatives was the trend at the time (Victorians who? ) And among the sea-born plants were the cuttings from the native American grapevines.

Not only the vines completed the trip, but they also insects that stow away.

From garden plots and greenhouses within France, phylloxera marched across Europe from the beginning of 1900 to present and ultimately decimated the winegrowing industry. The Vitis vinifera, also known as European grapevines, didn’t have the natural resistance to the phylloxera. Every single vine that was that was affected by phylloxera perished.

When France’s wine production declined as lesser-known regions sprung up to replace it with some unexpected results.

Paris :Librairie agricole de la maison rustique,1829-1974..

First, experienced French vineyard managers and viniculturalists moved into areas that were not yet affected by the phylloxera. This had a positive net impact, enhancing the local wine industry and knowledge everywhere French workers moved to produce wine.

Additionally, the necessity for exporting skilled laborers and import wine to an aging population resulted in an increase in commercial and agricultural traffic across France and other wine-growing regions that were constructed on railway systems. This has accelerated the spread of phylloxera into vineyards throughout Europe.

The result was that, by 1910, virtually none of the European wine-producing region had remained unaffected.

A representation of a grapevine from the 1890s of the rootstock, before and after an infestation of phylloxera.

The 1890s depiction of a grapevine rootstock, before and after an infestation of phylloxera.

How can winegrowers prevent Phylloxera?

The only known method for treating phylloxera is root grafting.

The practice of grafting in the horticultural field has been used for many thousands of years. This easy procedure takes the phylloxera-resistant rootstocks (the root-stem at the bottom of a vine) from the native American vine species Vitis berlandieri, Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris, and grafts it to the European fine-wine-producing species Vitis vinifera (the green leafy portion that grows on the vine).

Grafting was the solution to damaged vineyards.

When phylloxera struck the vineyards of virginity around Europe in the beginning of the 1900s, the remedy was widely known. Grape growers swiftly grafted their vineyards, losing only just a few years of production.

Grafting has become an ever-changing science. Nurseries can propagate new vines by using root grafts which incorporate drought resistance, phylloxera and even tolerance to salinity in the soil. Yay! Science!

A article from 1898 in the San Francisco newspaper announcement stating that the application of bacteria could be able to cure the phylloxera. Before grafting was popular the purported cures for phylloxera were similar to snake oil. every salesperson had an answer.

A year of 1898, a San Francisco newspaper announcement stated that a bacteria treatment could help to treat the phylloxera. Before grafting was popular and phylloxera cures claimed to be similar to snake oil. every salesperson had an answer.

Are All Grapevines Are grafted?

Not all grapevines can be transplanted. Self-rooted vines, which are those that have never had grafts and can grow naturally on their root systems are rare, but desired by wine enthusiasts. Certain conditions enable this.
Special Sandy Soils.

Phylloxera does not do well in sandy soils with deep depths so the vineyards lucky enough to be in these soil types can be self-rooted.

Jargon Alert”Ow-rooted” is a term used to state that the vine hasn’t been transplanted.

Geographically remote.

Some grape producing regions across the globe have not experienced the pest that was introduced.

Chile is awe-inspiring because it has the distinction of being the sole major producer of grapes in the world that has not had the phylloxera.

The Andean mountains to the west as well as The Atacama Desert to the north effectively separated the country the over-land migration of insects. Today strict quarantine laws safeguard the Chilean wine industry.

Perhaps the most well-known resistance to phylloxera is the vineyards in Barossa Valley located in Australia that are still free of phylloxera, just 150 years after the outbreak of the bug hit the continent. Older vines planted in 1890s have earned the label of being the oldest in the world’ due to their non-phylloxera vineyards.

Some vineyard owners decide to set up newer vineyards using American rootstock to hedge their bets against the likelihood of the arrival of phylloxera. Others believe in the tenacity of Barossa Valley’s long and storied background against the louse.
Is Phylloxera Still an Issue?

It is likely that known-prevention vignerons would have said goodbye to their arch-nemesis, the aphid at around 1910.

AXR1 is a well-known rootsstock hybrid that crossed V. vinifera with V. rupestris was popularized across North America as a suitably resistant to phylloxera. The rootstock did not perform well on the continent of Europe as well as South Africa, however, and despite the warnings issued to their viticultural counterparts across the Atlantic, it appeared to be able to produce positive outcomes in California. Therefore, winemakers planted AXR1 widely throughout Napa as well as Sonoma.

Unfortunately, AXR1’s vinifera-related parentage the tiny percentage of vinifera’s DNA, proved disastrous for the vines. In the 1980s, owners of vineyards had to cut down their vineyards and plant them with fully resistant phylloxera rootstocks.

That, my sassy dear friends, is a brief overview of the phylloxera.