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Sunday, May 19, 2024

How Texas Saved Cognac

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In the 19th century, the French wine industry faced a devastating crisis. The culprit? A tiny insect known as the aphid, which spread a destructive blight called phylloxera throughout the French countryside. The disease ravaged the vineyards of France from about 1860 to the mid-1870s, leaving the wine industry in ruins. But, as it turns out, the solution to this crisis came from an unlikely source: Texas.

The French Solution: Grafting American Root Stock
Two gentlemen, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, proposed a solution that involved grafting American root stock onto the indigenous French vines. The idea was to create phylloxera-resistant vines by taking advantage of the natural resistance to the blight found in American root stock. Desperate winemakers began to experiment with the technique, and to their astonishment, the American root stock proved resistant to phylloxera, and the French wine industry began to recover.

The Cognac Challenge: Chalky Soil
While the winemakers of Bordeaux and elsewhere in France celebrated the success of their grafting efforts, Cognac producers still faced a problem. The chalky soil of the Cognac region, particularly in the Grande and Petit Champagne appellations, posed a challenge to the American root stock. The grafted roots struggled to absorb iron from the soil, leading to a condition known as chlorosis, where the plant is unable to produce chlorophyll, and thus, cannot photosynthesize.

The Texas Solution: Vitis Berlandieri
In 1887, a young Frenchman named Pierre Viala was sent to the United States to find a suitable American root stock that could save the Cognac vineyards from phylloxera and allow the vines to thrive in Cognac’s unique soil. In the United States, Viala met Thomas Volney Munson, an American horticulturalist who was working on cultivating grapes in Texas. Munson had been cataloging grape varieties and discovered vitis berlandieri, a grape variety root stock that seemed to thrive in the limestone-laden soil of Texas. This grape variety seemed to be the perfect solution for the chalky soils of Cognac.

The Result: A Successful Recovery
Vitis berlandieri root stock were brought to Cognac and grafted onto existing vines, and the results were astounding. The grape vines of Cognac could once again thrive thanks to the resilience of the vitis berlandieri root stock and the efforts of Viala and Munson.

The Texas solution to the Great French Wine Blight was a remarkable example of international cooperation and ingenuity in the face of adversity. Through the combined efforts of Viala, Munson, and other dedicated individuals, the wine industry in France was saved, and the unique characteristics of Cognac were preserved for future generations to enjoy.

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