Phylloxera: the greatest plague of the grapevine

A parasite that lives in the leaves and roots of the vine was the cause of the greatest wine plague in living memory, marking a turning point in the history of winegrowing on the planet.

Daktulosphaira_vitifoliae_from_CSIROThe phylloxera plague developed during the last quarter of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and had a wide incidence in Europe and Spain. The cause of it all was an insect, the phylloxera vastratix (today known as dactylasphaera vitifoliae), a kind of tiny aphid that attaches itself to the leaves and roots of the vine and sucks the sap from the plants. It multiplies very quickly, which means that although the amount of sap that each parasite sucks is very small, the insects end up damaging the root of the vine and the plant eventually dies.

Phylloxera arrived in Europe between 1832 and 1840, entering through France, in the Languedoc area. It had its origin in the importation of vines from the American continent that were carriers of the mosquito and against which the European vines had no defense. From there, phylloxera began to spread first throughout Europe and finally throughout the world, except in very special cases such as Chile.

In Spain, during the 1870s, phylloxera entered through three sources, Oporto, Malaga and Gerona. Only the Canary Island vineyards and some particularly isolated areas with sandy soils that hindered the development of this devastating insect that attacks the roots of the vine were spared the attack of this insect.

Its expansion was so dramatic that it marked a before and after in the viticultural history of the planet, so much so that it almost put an end to vine cultivation in all of Europe. A large number of investigations were carried out to find a solution to the problem. The method that was successful and is still used today is the planting of rootstock from American vines (vitis labrusca, rupestri, riperia…) due to their proven resistance to phylloxera, on which European vine varieties (vitis vinifera) are grafted.

Although we talk about old vines from 30-40 years old and this concept is often reflected on the wine label as an added value that encourages the purchase, there are much older vineyards in Spain that survived the plague that devastated Europe. We are talking about pre-phylloxera or free-standing vineyards, planted directly in the ground without the help of American vines.

phylloxeraOne of the most representative examples of these vines is found in Chile, practically the only country in the world that has not been attacked by the parasite. Among other reasons, the country’s natural borders, with the Atacama Desert to the north, the glaciers of Patagonia to the south, the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, were an insurmountable barrier to the development of this devastating insect.

We must not forget that in a bottle of good wine there is more than just wine, there is a direct connection with history and the generations that preceded us. We should protect and pamper our viticultural heritage to leave it in good shape for future generations.

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