4 LIFE LESSONS WE CAN LEARN FROM PHYLLOXERA

He had realized there was something wrong. He was quite worried, because he had been losing some of the plants in his vineyard, without any particular reason he could name. As the situation was getting worse, he decided to write his observations to the chairman of the Agricultural Committee of Aix. With this letter, in 1867, Mr. Delome had become the first person who had reported the disease in the south of France, which was going to make France and the other European winegrowing countries suffer for decades. Later it was discovered the cause of this disease: Phylloxera – the aphid led to loss of many vineyards, destroyed the crop, paralyzed the wine production for decades.

By that time, it was impossible to envision these almost microscopic insects causing the biggest disaster of European viticulture. It was not easy to find out what phylloxera was, to discover it, to describe it, to know it, to name it, to find out a solution for it and to recover from it. All these steps were full of struggles and challenges, we can even call it “phylloxera battle”. This battle is full of lessons from history, to begin with for viticulture: Discovering the cause and finding applicable solutions of phylloxera is a milestone that made possible the recovery of European viticulture. But what is surprising is there are also many great lessons in this story about life. Even today we can use some of these lessons to shape our lives.

In this article, you’ll read interesting stories about phylloxera from history and how to cope with this disease. All these will be grouped under four life lessons we can derive from phylloxera battle: don’t give up, think before you act, be respectful abroad, and try to benefit from negativities.  

IMG_4108[1]
This is what phylloxera does to the leaves, it’s not severe as long as it doesn’t attack to the roots of the vine. Photo taken in Sept 2014, experimental vineyard, Montpellier SupAgro.

1) NEVER GIVE UP

Back to 1868. The concerns about the unknown disease were increasing. A committee which consists of three experts, Mr. Planchon, Mr. Bazille and Mr. Sahut, had been appointed for a general investigation by the Central Society of Agriculture of Hérault. These experts had travelled for three days and had visited many vineyards in the south of France. In every infected plant they pulled out, they had seen the same small, yellowish insects which had been attacking to the roots of the vines and sucking their sap.

After these visits, they had realized the severity of the situation and published their observations. They had invited all the producers to be aware of these insects which they found out to be the cause. However, there was one fact that they hadn’t counted on: The difficulty of convincing people!

It has been, and still is, very difficult to make someone realize the existence of something unknown or something unfamiliar. This has been the case almost hundred fifty years ago, and still is today. The debate for the cause of the disease had continued until 1873.

During that five-year period, Mr. Planchon had never given up. He had even grown vine plants in pots to demonstrate the insect was the cause of the disease. If that day the committee had given up, the discovery of phylloxera would have been postponed for many years. This shows us how important it is to resist and never give up to work on what we prove to be true.  

2) THINK TWICE BEFORE YOU ACT

When the phylloxera had been finally accepted as the cause of the disease in France, people wanted to know how it had arrived in Europe, since they hadn’t had any problems before.

In 1869, they realized that the American vines hadn’t been affected from phylloxera. Soon after this realization, they discovered that the phylloxera is native to America.

But how did these American vines come to Europe? The answer was shocking. Between 1850 -1857 European viticulture had been suffering from another severe disease, which is called oidium. Some of the producers wanted to study the response of the American vines to oidium and also their adaptability to their soil and climate. So, they had brought some resistant American vines, and had planted them right beside their European vines. They’ve never thought, a couple of decades later, these vines which they believed to be beneficial, would be bringing their biggest enemy. This shows us the importance of thinking about the possible consequences of our actions and always considering the future.

3) BE RESPECTFUL IN ABROAD

You might be wondering why phylloxera had invaded Europe with an incredible speed.

As phylloxera was native to America, it had been living on the American vines which are not sensitive to its bites. Moreover, phylloxera didn’t really like the nutrients present in the sap of American vines. They were simply not a good match, but still had been living together since phylloxera didn’t have a better option and American vines were just fine with it.

When phylloxera was brought to Europe by American origin plant materials, it had been brought into contact with French vines. Their contact was love at the first sight for phylloxera: It really enjoyed their nutritious roots. On the other hand, this was a nightmare for French vines, since they were sensitive to the bites of these tiny aphids.

Unfortunately, phylloxera didn’t care at all how French vines felt about them. It started to feed itself with leaves and roots of French vines. It started to grow so fast that it was actually killing his own food. After this greedy increment in its population, phylloxera almost didn’t leave any living vine roots on the European soils.

Phylloxera had acted like a spoiled tourist who cause damage to the country that he was visiting.

4) TRY TO BENEFIT FROM THE NEGATIVITIES

It’s true that phylloxera had arrived in Europe by American vines. But it was also defended by American vines.

After phylloxera was found guilty by the disease, the scientists and viticulturists had been trying everything that could possibly recover the plants. Soon, they had found out it was possible to kill the insect by injection of chemicals to the soil. This was an expensive effort, and more importantly, it also meant slaughtering all the other living things in the soil.

Another possible solution was found to be flooding the vineyards with water and drowning the insects. However, none of these solutions had guaranteed the recovery. Moreover, it was impossible to prevent the eventual contamination from neighbor vineyards.

Finally, the best solution found to be grafting the sensitive European vines to the roots of the resistant American vines, so that phylloxera cannot hurt the roots. Researchers started to investigate more and more about the adaptability of these vines to each other and the reactions with the soil and climate. As they learned more, they became more aware of the usage of rootstocks. By 1870, rootstock usage became very common, almost no more root system of European vines was used.

Nowadays, we use the rootstocks mainly for preventing phylloxera attacks, but also many other benefits are found: Chlorosis tolerance, vigor management, maturity speed, water or dryness adaptation etc. Rootstocks are an important tool for grape growers for rendering the viticulture practices easier. Although phylloxera had caused devastating problems for European viticulture years ago, it was possible to find a solution that brought many positive outcomes.

Long story short, the battle of phylloxera was won thanks to people who had respected their land and who had tried to make the best of it. Today, thanks to those people who hadn’t given up a hundred fifty years ago, we are able to enjoy the wines from Europe. Take a lesson or not, don’t forget to raise a glass of wine for them. The wine you’re drinking has an important history behind and deserves to be glorified.

Cheers,

Nesli

All images © 2017 by Wines of Nesli. All rights reserved.

REFERENCES

Legros, J.P. (1993). L’Invasion du vignoble par le Phylloxéra. Académie des Sciences et Lettres de Montpellier. Séance du 14/06/1993, Conférence n°2102 , Bull. n°24, pp. 205-222.

Allen. H.W. (1971). The Romance of Wine. New York: Dover Publications Inc.

Categories: Vineyards

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