The Great French Wine Blight was a marked event and is well-known by anyone in the wine industry, even wine fanatics. The "blight", as it was called in the late 1850s, which destroyed forty percent of French grape vines was later linked to a microscopic-sized aphid. Once you get to know the bug, for botanists and vineyard owners alike, it is more akin to something out of a monstrously devastating science-fiction novel. The bug threatened every vine in its path and the livelihood of thousands, not only in France but for wine regions worldwide.
How the Aphid "Phylloxera" Came to Europe
While some of you might be very familiar with the phylloxera saga, it is a story which is worth summarizing for those of you who are not. The story begins well over one-hundred fifty years ago when vines were imported from the United States by France. It was not until some fifteen years later that there seemed to be some unknown disease destroying entire vineyards. Vines were rotting away as well as their fruit. The unknown culprit was threatening both the production of wine and the industry as a whole.
Fast-forward through unrelenting efforts to stop the aphid in its tracks, it was over three decades later that, through much trial and error, a solution was found. It was noted that the aphid only seemed to affect the leaves on American vines. On the European vines, the bug lived and thrived on the roots sucking away at sap, leaving behind a secretion which prevents the vine from healing, while other phylloxera would mate and lie eggs on the underside of leaves and in the bark of the vine. Ironically enough, the solution was to return to the catalyst, the American vine. The American vine, Vitis labrusca, showed resistance to the louse, and it would become the rootstock on which the European vine, Vitis vinifera was grafted.
The Aftermath of Phylloxera in Europe
While the grafting method was a success, albeit not in the first try, many vineyards and wineries had gone out of business and for those who survived, wages and profits had been cut in half. And it was not only France who was affected by phylloxera - it managed to reach far corners of Europe and around the globe, including the US where 100% Vitis vinifera vines were cultivated. The only wine regions that were saved, perhaps only by geographic isolation were Washington State, Chile, Western Australia and Tasmania. The conclusion goes without saying that if vine grafting had not been introduced, the European wine industry would have ceased to exist indefinitely.
Interesting enough however, there were a few French vineyards which survived the blight and are still in operation today, including a vineyard in Gers, with exceptional vines that have spanned eight generations. Other vineyards located on the slopes of Mount Etna also survived. To this day, there has been no discovery regarding why these vines were resistant. The one theory which might be correct is perhaps the vines are exceptional specimens of their species which can ward off such a pest, much like some trees can resist certain diseases and pests in comparison to others of their species.
The Great French Wine Blight Changed the Wine Industry
However, we return to the devastating drama of Europe, more specifically of France and the ensuing plight to rebuild vineyards and their livelihood. While a solution had finally been found, there was still the long-awaited struggle and question of how they were to make great wine as they once had. What was to become of the wine industry?
Italy and Spain were the least effected and their industry profited greatly in contrast to France and other regions. This microscopic bug had changed the composition of French vineyards forever. Many varieties of wine grapes had been completely wiped out. This left many vineyard owners in the position to change the types and styles of wines they were making. It was also the reason for the increase in cultivation of many common wine varietals we know today; Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay among others. But for some, the opinion was that the wine produced by these hybrid vines was second-rate. Some might question whether it was fact or pride which changed the wine industry of France following The Great French Wine Blight.
However in France, this did not effect production. By the early 20th century, the country was facing other challenges due to surpluses. Riots erupted in 1910 and 1911 in Champagne, France, leaving many dead in their wake due to low prices. France was producing more wine than its citizens could consume. By 1930, the enactment of the Statut de la Viticulture was created in order to not only limit production, but create higher-quality wines.
By the mid-1900s, many regions of France were struggling to regain their reputation outside of the famed terroirs of Burgundy and Bordeaux. However, other wine countries were benefiting from their misfortune. Australia and California were especially gaining in recognition for quality wines, despite the previous assumption that good wine could not be produced from hybrids. They were doing so especially with famous French varietals on American rootstock.
Since the onset of phylloxera, one-third of France's vineyards have ceased to exist. For a few decades, the spotlight on French wine had faded and allowed for other regions who were more fortunate, to shine. In the beginning, the world of wine had center-stage in France. It was The Great French Wine Blight which changed it all. France has long-since recovered its vineyards and much of its reputation. However, the rest of the world was put on the wine map and other countries have since created their own traditions in wine. If anything, perhaps it was phylloxera which opened the doors for ingenuity and diversity in wine for generations to come.