Phylloxera

I spent most of the first week of 2011 in bed with a bad case of flu, and consequently had plenty of time to re-read some of my favorite books.

The first one that fell into my hands was Phylloxera – How Wine was Saved for the World by Christy Campbell. (ISBN 0 00 711535 0).  It never ceases to amaze me that the epic struggle against the vine louse took over 30 years, from when it arrived in France from America in the late 1860s until a ‘cure’ was found at the very end of the 19th century, and that the culprit – American plant material, ultimately provided the solution through phylloxera-resistant American rootstock (carefully selected to resist chlorosis from chalky European soils) to which European vinifera vines were grafted.

The fight against phylloxera was organized around two schools of thought: to use Campbell’s terms, the sulfuristes, who favored chemical means such as injecting carbon bisulphide, an explosive compound, into the soil, copper sulphate, whale oil and petrol, potassium sulphide dissolved in urine, flooding the vineyards with water or replanting vines in sandy soil. The américainistes, on the other hand, believed that the absence of the louse on American roots (but not on leaves) was somehow the key to its erradication. The fact that the infected vines came from America made this solution preposterous at the time.

Of course, we all know that the américainistes were right but at first, the proponents of insecticides seemed to have the upper hand.  Some of their methods were outright scams, but others seemed to hold the pest at bay, so were widely used.

While France, Portugal and parts of Spain struggled from the 1870s on, Rioja was spared from phylloxerization until 1899.  As we all know, this was a boon to the Riojan wine industry, as the demand for wine in France had to come from abroad, and Rioja wines were being made in a style commercially attractive to French merchants.

In view of the well-documented, European-wide research into the causes of phylloxera and the alert network put in place by governments at the time, it was shocking to read in another book (Viña Tondonia:  un pago, una viña y un vino) about a scam that took place in Rioja just as the louse was making its presence known here.

Phylloxera’s presence was first detected in La Rioja in 1899.  Like other European regions, importing American vines was totally forbidden in Rioja until the presence of the louse was confirmed.  At about this time, one Guillermo Varela, from Verín in Galicia appeared, promising a guaranteed remedy against the louse.  Varela promised to reveal the composition of his remedy in exchange for a bank deposit of 250.000 pesetas (I have no idea about the current value, but it was a lot of money).  After the desperate Rioja vintners deposited the funds in a local bank, the formula was revealed:  water, quicklime, copper sulfate, tobacco and male urine.  Needless to say, Varela disappeared and the formula didn’t work after extensive testing by Víctor Cruz Manso de Zúñiga and his team at the Enological Research Station in Haro.

In the end, the only solution was grafting, which was finally finished in the early 1930s.  Before then, however, more than 20.000 people had left Rioja in search of a new livelihood and the vineyard area, 50.000 hectares in 1900, had been reduced to 14.000 in 1909.

Vineyard plantings in Rioja didn’t reach 50.000 hectares again until the year 2000.

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