Defeating the Leaf Destroyer

Defeating the Leaf Destroyer
Vines were dying throughout France and the malady called Phylloxera had spread to Portugal and Spain. The cause had been identified as tiny yellow aphids that multiplied fast, and they appeared to have come on vines shipped from North America where the local vines survived them.

But the American vines did not make good wine. The race was on to find how to keep growing the European vine species.

Meanwhile some farmers were importing American vines to replace their dead ones on the grounds that even poor wines would be better than none.

The French Government put up a large public prize for the solution and received thousands of entries. Ringing of church bells, prayers and sermons hadn’t succeeded so anything that offered hope was tried by desperate farmers.

Most suggestions looked at ways to kill the aphids on the roots, and noxious and poisonous substances were poured and injected into the ground, doing more harm to the vines than the aphid. In one village, schoolboys were let out of class each morning and afternoon to urinate on vines.

One suggestion did work. Building a wall around a vineyard and flooding it for two months did kill the aphids, but it had to be done every year and wasn’t suitable for the many vineyards on slopes, or with porous soils, or insufficient water supply.

The cause of the problem had come from America, though some experts didn’t accept this, and the eventual solution came from America.

Discussions between experts around the world came up with two possible actions. First was to cross breed American and European vines with the intention of getting palatable wine with resistance to Phylloxera. That took time, but there were some successes. However the solution eventually settled on and used to this day is to combine two vines by grafting. Use the roots of resistant American vines and graft on top a European vine. It seemed the taste of the wine wasn’t affected by the origin of the roots.

Why were American vines resistant? Over aeons the only vines to survive were those that had found ways to cope with the depredations of the aphids, which were native to North East America, so the vines and Phylloxera had co-existed from the beginning.

But there was great resistance from wine growers in fine wine area of letting into their vineyards any part of American vines, which had been the cause of so much devastation.

Read Part 1 Invasion of the Leaf Destroyer
More to follow in Part 3

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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.



You Should Also Read:
Invasion of the Leaf Destroyer
Beating the Leaf Destroye

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