How Humanity almost Lost Wine - Phylloxera Epidemic

How Humanity almost Lost Wine - Phylloxera Epidemic

At the end of the 19th century, humanity almost lost wine FOREVER! Millions of hectares of vineyards were destroyed, lit on fire, and the soils injected with kerosine. Tens of thousands of winemakers moved to Africa, hundreds of thousands of people in the wine industry lost their jobs and wine became a scarcity… And Nobody knew what was the cause… It is a tale of heroes and charlatans, with an ironic ending.

What happened? How did we solve this?

The Story of Phylloxera

It's 1866. The European population is experiencing a period of relative peace and prosperity. The standard of living is rising fast, due to the wealth that the new opportunities that the colonization brought and the scientific breakthroughs that are happening. The appetite for wine is increasing and so does the size of the area of vineyards across Europe.

In France, the population is enjoying a calm period, after the revolution. But not for long…

On a misty morning, in the southern Rhone, a winemaker reports the death of a whole vineyard. Nobody really cares… It happens. Probably he f#cked up something. But very soon, adjacent wineries also start to notice something unusual.

It becomes clear that something is not right. The French government sets up a three-man squad to investigate the situation. When they dig up the dead vines, they don't find anything. The roots are just rotten but nothing unusual. They continue digging in the adjacent vineyard where the vines also started to show some symptoms. When they uproot the vines they notice that the roots are swarmed with tiny yellow insects.

The researchers led by Jules-Émile Planchon, Professor of Botany and Pharmacy at the Université de Montpellier, declared their triumph in finding the secret criminal, but instead of applause, they were faced with ridicule. The scientific community denied the possibility of such little insects wreaking havoc in this fashion. The officials in Paris declared that the appearance of the insects must be a mere symptom of the mysterious plague.

The scientific landscape is in its infant stage at this point, just out of the womb of enlightenment. Louis Pasteur is just beginning his carrier, Charles Darwin published his “radical” work On the Origin of Species, just 7 years ago. The medical community is convinced that all maladies are caused by imbalances in the body, rather than outside forces like infections or parasites. So the scientific community is not so scientific yet, to be honest.

The idea of the insects causing the catastrophe was tossed in the drawer and the government of France set a bounty on the head of the bizarre plague. The bounty was big. Really. It was 20,000 francs which would be around 1 million dollars today. Naturally, the miraculous remedies started flooding the ministery, witch doctors, and impostors.

The most popular remedies that actually started spreading through Europe were burying a frog next to each vine, beating the vines with a stick, praying, and injecting kerosene into the soil.

Obviously, while the vinegrowers were going through all the tips and tricks they learned from their neighbor, the plague was rampaging through Europe and the vineyards disappeared day by day. There was actually one solution that worked. Lighting the vineyard in fire. It did prevent the vines from dying because of the plague. But they kinda died from the fire, so not a perfect solution.

In a lucky coincidence, in 1869 a vineyard on the brink of death had a massive flood, and the vines were submerged for weeks. Unexpectedly the vines were saved. Soon this realization brought back attention to the possibility of the insects causing the problem. The growers also noticed that vines on sandy soils were also doing better. This was explained by the fact that the insects couldn't dig their tunnels in the sandy soil. From this moment the insects became the main target and the fight has begun! The name of the insect is Phylloxera!

While the scientists were looking for remedies, based on the positive effects of the flooding, winemakers started flooding their vineyards artificially. The technique worked quite effectively, but it was limited to vineyards in flat areas and to wineries with great financial reserves because the vineyard had to be flooded for 6 weeks straight. New vineyards also started to appear in sandy areas where no vineyards were seen before. For example on the beaches of France. But most of them were washed away by the ocean and the experimentation stopped. All these bizarre events show the desperate situation, humanity was facing.

What is Phylloxera?

Phylloxera is a microscopic aphid that feeds on the roots of grapevines. It can spread from vineyard to vineyard through the soles of vineyard workers, underground through the roots, or even through the air. It is native to North America and it arrived in Europe in 1863 on a batch of vines that were brought to combat the powdery mildew crisis. Ironically it caused more trouble than any other disease in history.

Phylloxera has a complex life cycle of up to eighteen stages, which can be divided into four main forms: sexual form, leaf form, root form, and winged form. The crazy thing is that a single female insect can produce 25 billion descendants over the course of eight months, without the assistance of a male.

But if it was native to North America, how come nobody really knew about it until it arrived in Europe? Well, the native American vines developed a natural resistance to Phylloxera. Their roots, create a sticky sap that prevents the insects from attacking the roots. The problem is that these American grapes are not really suitable for winemaking. Only the European Vitis Vinifera species is fit for wine and it is used globally. All the well know grape varieties that you see on wine bottles belong to this species. So Phylloxera could spread globally with no issue. And it did!

Spoiler alert! They did NOT find a cure for phylloxera and we still don't have any.

How did we stop it?

So how did we stop it if there is no cure? Well, the solution was laying in front of us the whole time, we just had to go back to the root of the issue. Literally.

As I mentioned before, the American Vine species such as Vitis Labrusca, were immune to Phylloxera. Developed by the three heroes Jules Émile Planchon, Pierre-Marie-Alexis Millardet, and Charles Valentine Riley, the solution to stop Phylloxera was grafting the European Vitis Vinifera wines to the resistant American Rootstocks.

To commemorate the heroes that saved the wine industry and to remember these dark times, I launched some limited Edition pieces on the website. Check them out!

So the grafting allowed the root system to remain resistant to the spread of Phylloxera, while still producing high-quality grapes. Grafting is the process of uniting two plants to form a single entity. The upper part of the graft serves as the top of the plant and the lower portion acts as the root system or part of the trunk.

At first, this innovative solution was met with skepticism and ridicule, as is often the case with pioneering ideas. Grafting was even prohibited in many wine-producing regions, as it was believed that combining the noble Vitis Vinifera with the barbaric Labrusca and hybrid rootstocks would compromise the quality of the wine. This debate continues to this day, but eventually, the wine industry came to the realization that there was no other viable option, and the bans were gradually lifted, with the Bordeaux ban being the last to be lifted in 1881.

This sparked the birth of a whole new industry. Rootstock farms began to appear, providing millions of rootstocks for replanting. These farms also worked to create new hybrids and varieties that were more resistant to phylloxera and other diseases, as well as offering higher yields, better wine quality, and better compatibility with specific grape varieties. One of the most influential figures in this new industry was the renowned Hungarian scientist and plant breeder, Teleki Zsigmond. His rootstocks, developed in the 1890s, are still used today in vineyards across the globe, a testament to his pioneering work.


After the Phylloxera Plague, the entire wine industry underwent a dramatic transformation. Today, almost all of the vineyards around the globe have been replanted with grafted vines, while less fortunate wine regions have completely disappeared. Although there are a few miraculous exceptions that somehow escaped the plague, some vines are still standing on their own legs. These vineyards enjoy a special place in the hearts of wine lovers and are rare gems, reminding us of a different age.

Cyprus is one of the few places that was spared from the disaster. Most vineyards in Chile were also fortunate, being sheltered by the Andes Mountains to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Atacama Desert to the north. Another famous example is found at the Italian Lisini estate in the Montalcino wine region. The half-hectare vineyard was planted in the mid-1800s and survived the last two centuries without phylloxera. The Estate produces a limited edition wine called Prefillosero which translates to "before phylloxera".

Besides the chaos in the European wine regions, there was a pretty extreme effect in Africa that is rarely discussed. In the 19th century, Algeria was a French Protectorate. In response to the Phylloxera pandemic, the French government offered subsidies to French winemakers to move to Algeria and rebuild the French wine industry there in Africa. In a matter of years, more than 10,000 winemakers had relocated to Algeria, and 50,000 hectares of vineyard were planted. This resulted in explosive growth of the Algerian wine industry, which quickly became a major part of the economy. In a few years, Algeria became the SINGLE BIGGEST wine exporter in the world. But this unexpected growth did not last long. Easy come easy go, after the Algerian independence the wine segment imploded. Without access to the European market, they couldn't sell their enormous wine supplies. The internal market wasn't a huge fan of wine, to say the least, so everything collapsed. The following governments thought that it is inappropriate for an Islamic country to have such an extensive alcohol industry, and much of the vineyards were converted to table grape production.

So this is how it all went down. For a moment, humanity taught that we are going to lose wine, forever. But we are smarter than that! Just had to look at the root of the problem.

Whatch the video about this topic here:

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