Should we always fear phylloxera? Yes, surely. Nevertheless, it is surely time to move forward.
Wine has gone through many political, religious, economic and health-related crises since its discovery in that forgotten amphora (see La Vie de Château no. 13). But it was a tiny demon from the Americas that really decimated France’s vineyards. Phylloxera vastatrix, from the Greek for devastating leaf-dryer, is a species of the order of aphids. Phylloxera gallicola develops on the leaves, causing them to dry out and phylloxera radicicole develops on the roots, leading to decay. Some of these insects can be successively wingless and winged, meaning that they can use the wind to help create new outbreaks of infection.
This enemy landed on our shores in 1865, clinging to a few vines imported by collectors. Although there had been outbreaks of powdery mildew in 1830, followed by late blight - two fungal diseases that caused considerable damage – this was nothing in comparison with what was to come! First Midi Provençal, then Bordeaux, Charente, Minervois, Beaujolais, Burgundy, Loire Valley, Champagne... all our wine regions were affected, with 800,000 hectares gobbled up by this enemy over the next 30 years (nearly a third of France’s winegrowing surface area in 1875). With science powerless to stop this onslaught, a host of experiments were launched: winter submersion of the vines to drown the beast, irrigation of plots with white wine, ash spreading, the use of quicklime and iron salts, even the burial of live toads under the vine… It was Jules Planchon, director of the Superior school of pharmacy in Montpellier however – the man who had discovered phylloxera - who, in 1873, succeeded in importing American plants that were resistant to the invader. He grafted our European Vitis vinifera to them and began planting these products of “forced marriages” to replace our French vines. The hybrids obtained were not only insensitive to phylloxera but also more tolerant of the cold and resistant to other parasites, such as mildew. They also gave better yields. The vineyards were thus reconstituted little by little thanks to tax incentives and the formation of cooperatives. Rootstocks have become an essential facet of successful planting. Chosen to suit the soil type, they promote vigour and precocity in grafts, giving them a better link with the soil.
But isn’t that the problem? The grafted vine itself is no longer in direct contact with the earth, let alone its bunches and fruit. Doesn’t this rootstock intermediary blur the message coming through from the terroir? This modern filter draws upon what it needs based on its own physiology and not that of the graft.
Not to mention the injury inflicted on the plants to “solder” these two bodies together which can be traumatic, poor vascularization can create tissue degradation or even a necrosis area. In our quest to recapture the real taste of the terroir we’re thus beginning to hanker after straight-up, authentic wines that are, quite literally, rooted in the soil.