The Great French Wine Blight
Aphids devastated the vineyards of France from about 1860 to the mid-1870’s. The destruction of France’s vineyards was caused by aphids’ feeding pattern that involves injecting venom into grape vines causing the root structure of the vines to corrode and the vines to die. The blight caused by aphids on grape vines is called phylloxera.
While phylloxera was raging across the French country side and the French wine industry in ruins, two gentlemen, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, proposed a solution that involved grafting American root stock that were resistant to phylloxera onto the indigenous French vines thereby creating phylloxera resistant vines.
The proposal of Messrs. Laliman and Bazille was implemented across French vineyards and was a success.
The Problem of Grafting American Root Stock to Cognac Vines
While the winemakers of Bordeaux and elsewhere in France were celebrating the success of grafting American root stock to their vines, Cognac producers still had a problem. The chalky soil of the Cognac regions, especially in the Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne appellations, posed another hurdle. While grafting had created phylloxera resistent vines, the root stock that they experimented with did not thrive in the chalky soils of the Champagne appellations. The grafted roots were unable to adequately absorb iron from the soil which prevented the production of chlorophyll, creating a condition known as cholorosis.
The search was on for a root stock that would not only be resistant to phylloxera but could thrive in the chalky soils of the Champagne appellations of Cognac.
The Texas Solution
In 1887, a young Frenchman, Pierre Viala was sent to the United States to find a suitable American root stock that would help save the Cognac vineyards from phylloxera and also allow the vines to thrive in Cognac’s chalky soil. In the U.S. Mr. Viala encountered Thomas Volney Munson, an American horticulturalist who was working on cultivating grapes in Texas. Mr. Munson had been cataloging grape varieties and found vitis berlandieri growing in the limestone laden soil of Texas. This grape variety root stock seemed to be the right solution for the chalky soils of coganc. Vitis berlandieri root stock were brought to Cognac and grated on to existing vines et voilà -success. The grape vines of Cognac could once again thrive thanks to vitis berlandieri and Messrs. Viala and Munson.
Some French vineyard owners resisted the grafting of American root stock on to their vines to prevent phylloxera and chose instead to use pesticides to combat the blight. These vineyard owners referred to the root grafters as “Americanists”.
Ironically, the solution to France’s phylloxera blight, may have been the source of the problem as some suspect the importation of American vines and aphids years earlier caused the destruction of the French vineyards.