top of page

Phylloxera - What is it?

Phylloxera is an insect (louse) thats feeds from the rootstock of a grapevine. But lets go in order.

"A scourge erupted in Europe that nearly destroyed every single wine grape in the world. In the late 1800’s, wineries all over Europe ripped up and burned their family’s ancient vineyards in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of disease. By the 1900’s Phylloxera had taken a beyond-imaginable toll: over 70% of the vines in France were dead –the livelihoods of thousands of families were ruined. There was an international wine deficit. In one scenario, three small precious plots of Pinot Noir owned by Bollinger in Champagne magically resisted Phylloxera. The resulting 3000 bottles of wine called “Vieille Vignes Françaises” (French Old Vines) became the most sought-after bottles of Champagne. Devastated by the wrath, the Minister of Agriculture and Commerce in France offered 20,000 Francs –$1 million today– to anyone who could find a cure. So what was the cause of the grape phylloxera destruction and how come there is still no cure?"

Phylloxera spread out to the nearby nations, destroying the viticulture in Italy, in Spain , in Germany.

Where did Phylloxera come from?short answer: The United States.

It seems that phylloxera had long been present in American soil but much of the rootstock there had developed a resistance to it. In the 19th century, there were no restrictions on travellers carrying plants and fruits, and vine cuttings were taken from the old world to the new (and vice versa) in the spirit of experimentation.

Once the American rootstock, which was immune to the pest (but still a carrier), reach­ed Europe, phylloxera ravaged winer­ies across the continent. Miraculously, a few vineyards remained free of the insect. The common characteristic of these surviving vineyards was that they had sandy soils in areas with high winds.

The Man Behind Phylloxera?

Phylloxera may have spread through the unintended actions of “Count” Agoston Haraszthy, who started Sonoma’s oldest winery, Buena Vista Winery, in 1857. In 1861, Haraszthy traveled to Europe tromping through the vineyards in France, Germany and Switzerland to collect samples. He brought back cuttings of 350 different types of grapes and started an experimental vineyard in Sonoma. Sadly, the vines turned brown and died –the first infestation of Phylloxera in the U.S.. After much defeat, Agoston Haraszthy filed for bankrupcy and eventually left the U.S., never to return.

The Reward Was Never Paid!

Over 450 articles poured out about the subject of Phylloxera between the years of 1868 – 1871. Studies were conducted with test plantings, poison, flooding, soil types, etc., until a small group of researchers including a Frenchman, Jules Émile Planchon, and an American, Charles Valentine Riley, discovered a solution! Grafting vitis vinifera (the European grapevine) onto American root stock stopped the root-eating louse. While the researchers never sought the reward, which had grown to nearly $5 million of today’s money, a viticulturist in Bordeaux called Leo Laliman did. Laliman had taken the experimental techniques and turned them into a commercial practice in Bordeaux. The government turned him down, saying that he’d merely used preventive measures and didn’t develop a cure.

European Wine Grapes with American Roots

Today rootstock is still used for much of the wine world and phylloxera is still a danger. The danger is no less in the U.S. In the 1990’s a mutation of Phylloxera called ‘Biotype B,’ was found thriving in AXr1, which was a common rootstock. About two thirds of the vineyards in Napa during the 90’s were replanted. Phylloxera has also devastated many ungrafted vineyards in Oregon, whose owners had hoped that the louse wouldn’t infest the virgin soils. Phylloxera Resistant VineyardsThere have been several cases where vineyards have remained untouched by grape phylloxera. While many of these locations are a mystery, a high proportion of the phylloxera-resistant vineyards have sandy soils in areas with high winds. In Australia, Queensland was infected in the 1870’s. The Australian governement responded to protect their precious vineyards with the Vine Protection Act of 1874, which ceased the common practice of transporting vines, machinery and equipment throughout the states. Today, Tasmania and Western Australia have still never been infested.

So by grafting the rootstocks of American Vitis to the Vinifera plant, the world was able to save the viticulture and the wines that everybody enjoys today. But Phylloxera could not survive in Volcanic soil and Sandy soil ( near beaches). So in some areas the plants are original un-grafted plants, there is a debate if the wines from un-grafted plants are actually better. Sometimes the label on the bottles highlightes this peculiarity ... NOW YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS. ****

** The Wine Folly



bottom of page