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Phylloxera: The Bug That Almost Wiped Out Wine

A long time ago, a tiny insect nearly destroyed every grape vine in Europe. Not quite so long ago, it almost did the same in Northern California. Its ravenous appetite terrorized wineries and would forever change the way grapes are grown. It even helped absinthe become wildly popular in Belle Epoque France.

Phylloxera is a creature so small you can barely see it with the naked eye. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in quantity—where there’s one there’s millions who think the roots of grape vines are scrumptious. Their collective noshing keeps nutrients from getting to the rest of the plant, and the poor vine soon starves. Once the bug is in a vineyard, there’s no stopping them until every single planting is dead. Vicious!

Phylloxera is our own homegrown pest, native to the East Coast. Thanks to natural selection, many American grapes—including subspecies like Concord, Niagara, and Norton—are fairly resistant to the scourge. But back in the late 19th century, Europe’s vines were defenseless, as all of the continent’s vineyards were planted with phylloxera’s preferred Vitis vinifera clones. That’s right! Pinot, Chard, Cab, and most every grape you’ve seen on a wine label are actually the same species and the bug’s favorite snack.

This monoculture was just fine until colonialists brought American vine cuttings back to the Old World with some six-legged stowaways. And once phylloxera arrived, they had a whole continent of defenseless roots to eat. Wine glasses went dry and thirsty Europeans were forced to turn to other drinks.

Ironically, ravaged wineries found a savior in the very thing that brought the scourge to their shores: American grape vines. By grafting new roots to their vines, they were able to keep growing familiar grape varieties. Today, there’s a little bit of America in most of Europe’s vineyards.

But this isn’t just a problem of the past. Phylloxera devastated Napa and Sonoma in the late 1980s because even though these vineyards had been grafted, it was with the wrong rootstock. Pockets of the New World are still very much at risk of falling prey to the swarm’s insatiable appetite. Most of Chile is planted with original roots, and this resilient pest has been spotted as far away as the ungrafted vineyards of Australia.

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