What Are Phylloxera? | A Look Into Wine’s Biggest Pest

Harry Lambourne
23rd June 2023

Phylloxera are one of a winemakers most feared foes. Batman had the Joker. Tom had Jerry. Harry Potter had Lord Voldemort. This pairing is the same. For a period of time it looked like the phylloxera was set to take everything from European winemakers. However, as we love to see, the winemakers won out in the end.

Phylloxera have devastated vines across the world, even to the point where they become global news. How many bugs make global news? The ‘Great French Wine Blight‘ recalls the time when these little pests nearly brought the European wine industry to its knees.

If there’s a particular wine region you enjoy, it’s almost a guarantee that these little bugs have ripped through the wine regions vines. Many French regions such as Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, the Loire Valley, Alsace and the Languedoc have all been attacked by it. Languedoc-Roussillon was actually the first region to be affected by phylloxera.

However, Austria, Germany, Rioja, South Africa and beyond have also been plagued by these pests. Indeed, it has affected almost all winemaking nations with a few exceptions such as America, Chile and some parts of Argentina and South Australia. Phylloxera could never find a home in these areas.

We’ll take you on a quick tour through the world of phylloxera. You’ll learn what phylloxera are and how they harm vines, what happened during the ‘Great French Wine Blight’, as well as the methods winemakers have adopted to protect their precious crops from them.

What Are Phylloxera?

Phylloxera are insects which are native to North America. They have an odd life cycle and take various forms throughout the year. At one point, they live underground and it is here that they do their damage.

They feed on the roots of the vine, creating small holes. These small holes allow for infections to enter the vine. They then weaken the vine and ultimately the vines die.

A crucial point is that this was only devastating to the European species of vines, (called ‘vitis vinifera‘). American vines evolved alongside phylloxera. They inhibit them by clogging its mouth with sticky sap when it tries to eat into the vine. They have also evolved protective layers behind the feeding wound so that infections can’t enter. Amazing things plants, aren’t they?

Now, let’s take a look at the event that shook the European wine world and how the clever evolution of these plants brought about a solution to this epic problem.

The Great French Wine Blight

Punch Cartoon from 1890 depicting Phylloxera

The event occurred in the mid 19th century. The blight may be named ‘French’, but the same event decimated vines across all of Europe. There’s still a debate surrounding how the phylloxera, (a type of aphid), made it to Europe.

They were transported from America, but vines had been brought across many times before the harmful outbreak. The main theory is that steamships were invented. This drastically cut down on the travel time from America to Europe. This meant that the aphids had just enough time to cling on to life and take action on the other side of the Atlantic.

At this point it was game over. The foreign species was introduced and there was no way of coping. It took some time for people to even identify what the issue was. By that point, the damage was done. Over 40% of French grape vines were ruined over a 15 year period, with the damage estimated to be around 10 billion Francs.

How Did Winemakers Adapt?

Winemakers are nothing if not inventive and hard-working. They’re the right sort of people to adjust to these problems and they did. The topic was a great debate in the wine world, people researched phylloxera in great detail, trying to find the best way to stop them. They proved resistant to insecticides and attempts to crossbreed the vines with American vines which were immune proved costly and ineffective.

Phylloxera Conference 1874
Drawing of a Phylloxera Conference in Paris (1874)

Although, there intuition was correct. In fact, the answer lay in the land that introduced them to Europe. We touched upon the fact that American vines were immune to phylloxera. This is how winemakers overcame their phylloxera problem. It comes from a process known as grafting. In this process, the upper part of the vines are grafted onto a different rootstock.

Vines are regularly pruned and cut, with most vines being replanted every few years. These upper parts of the vines determine things like the grape variety. So, winemakers would plant the American rootstocks into the ground, as they couldn’t be harmed by the phylloxera. Then, they’d graft on ‘vitis vinifera’ vines.

This meant they could continue to plant the same grape varieties which had been planted for hundreds of years. Yet, the pests which had been causing so much damage could no longer penetrate the rootstocks.

To this day, vines are still grafted onto American rootstocks. Phylloxera outbreaks may be much rarer but they’re still lurking about. When an outbreak is spotted strict quarantine procedures are put in place to ensure any problems don’t spread.

They’re just waiting to rip through a batch of vines and ruin a winemakers crops for that year. Luckily, winemakers got the better of them but it certainly was one serious battle.

That’s the story of the little insects that nearly took down a continents wine industry. You’ll often read about phylloxera when learning about the history of your favourite wine regions. Any winemakers will know the name and shudder. Beware the phylloxera!

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