The Botanist and the Vintner
January 19, 2020 7:16 PM - by Christy Campbell - Subscribe

In the mid-1860s, grapevines in southeastern France inexplicably began to wither and die. Jules-Émile Planchon, a botanist from Montpellier, was sent to investigate. He discovered that the vine roots were covered in microscopic yellow insects. What they were and where they had come from was a mystery. The infestation advanced with the relentlessness of an invading army and within a few years had spread across Europe, from Portugal to the Crimea. The wine industry was on the brink of disaster. The French government offered a prize of three hundred thousand gold francs for a remedy. Planchon believed he had the answer and set out to prove it. Gripping and intoxicating, The Botanist and the Vintner brings to life one of the most significant, though little-known, events in the history of wine.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis (3 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
An old-y but goody about one of the most momentous events in wine history- when the world nearly lost the beverage. The aphid was a gift from America, that had co-existed with the continents native Vitis vines since time immemorial, and therefore was of minimal threat to them. But Vitis vinifera in Europe was terribly weak to an enemy it had not co-evolved along and started to fall. Badly. Whole vineyards became graveyards of twisted dead vines, and the crisis would spark emigration of French peasants around the world to lands they could bring their wine-making knowledge to- but alas, those places would soon be struck by the aphid too- the new steamships were too fast and bringing invisible pests in their wake. It took decades of science and politicking to figure out the solution- graft French (and Italian, Spanish etc) vines to American root-stock that was immune to the dastardly bug; but of course it took ages for those in power to agree to do such a thing, worried about "polluting" their pure French vines with "savage" American flavors. It's a fascinating tale, and the book starts with a late 90's early aughts phylloxera aphid outbreak in California that was not yet solved- I want to read that book next!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 7:23 PM on January 19, 2020

They aren't microscopic. Last year I saw these things on my grapes and (can't lie) was pretty thrilled when I realized they were phylloxera.
posted by acrasis at 4:31 PM on January 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I feel like normal people would question your enthusiasm about such a notorious pest- but speaking as someone cursing the cabbage aphids out back if I could catch a glimpse of the bugs that upended European wine growing for decades I would also be thrilled! What grape variety were you growing? One of the resistant ones that just weathers the bug- or did you lose the vines?
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:27 PM on January 21, 2020

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