Call it a cross-cultural exchange or a horrible mistake, this is another bump in the long history between Americans and Europeans – we accidentally endangered Europe’s beloved vineyards and their wine-loving way of life.
Many European countries, such as Spain, Italy, France, and Germany, are extremely proud of their high wine production. But, an American plague in the 19th century threatened these illustrious reputations.
Curiosity killed the grapes?
Phylloxera, an almost-microscopic insect that feeds on and kills the leaves of grapevines, was brought to Europe when botanists in Victorian England brought specimens of American vines to the United Kingdom in the 1850s. Little did they know, their simple botanic curiosity led to an irreversible change in the economy of Europe. Since phylloxera is native to North America, American grapevines evolved to be at least partially resistant through a variety of mutations. However, because the European noble vines are all clones of the same species and have very little genetic diversity, they had no protection from the insect. The epidemic wiped out many British vineyards, spread to the European mainland, and later to other continents: devastating most of the winemaking world. The race to find a cure began.
A European and American collaboration
Desperate measures were taken to combat the rapidly-spreading plague. A huge amount of research was dedicated to stopping the phylloxera plague, especially since it decimated the livelihoods of so many. For some, this was the difference between employed and safe or poor and homeless. Frantic French grape growers buried live toads under each vine to suck out the “poison.” Some attempted hybridization – the breeding of European vines with resistant American ones. The goal was to increase the protection from phylloxera while still retaining the taste of the European vines, but unfortunately, the new hybrid vines weren’t particularly resistant to phylloxera at all.
Other methods included flooding, the use of toxic chemicals, and grafting European vines onto the roots of hardy American ones. Grafting turned out to work better than all the other failed attempts. It is the preferred method today since it also provides protection from other grape-killing diseases. Because the American vines only make up the root of the plant, the taste is still distinctly European. The American roots fight off the phylloxera so their European cousins can continue to produce delicious-tasting wine.
The tables have turned
The Assyrtiko grapes, which grow on the volcanic Santorini, Greece, are some of the few European grapes that are naturally resistant to the phylloxera plague. Large sections of vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna (a volcano in Sicily, Italy), also remain phylloxera-free, leading to speculations that dry volcanic soil is more resistant than wet and fertile soil. Wine grown in Chile and Southern Australia also remain untouched by the plague. Ironically, this is one of the few cases where the New World wreaked havoc on the Old.
The positive side
The next time you make a mistake, just think of how the British botanists felt when they realized their samples led to the downfall of the majority of native European vines and you’ll feel much, much better about yourself. However, the consequences of their grave error weren’t all doom and gloom. Although there is currently no cure, grape growers all over the world have found ways of managing the insect’s spread. Through the unintentional contamination of phylloxera, vintners were forced to develop hardier, more adaptable vines, which ensured the continuation of the winegrowing world as we know it today.
If you would like to come and experience some of these amazing wines firsthand, come join us on one of our amazing Complete Penedès and Priorat wine tours: 3-Day Wine Lovers Escapes. On this tour, you will experience a three-day, two-night, six-winery, lots-of-great-food-along-the-way eno-adventure through Catalunya’s most famous wine regions. Learn more HERE!