Great French Wine Blight

The Great French Wine Blight was a severe blight of the mid-19th century that destroyed many of the vineyards in France and laid waste to the wine industry. It was caused by an aphid that originated in North America and was carried across the Atlantic in the late 1850s. The actual genus of the aphid is still debated, although it is largely considered to have been a species of Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, commonly known as grape phylloxera. While France is considered to have been worst affected, the blight also did a great deal of damage to vineyards in other European countries.

A cartoon from Punch from 1890: The phylloxera, a true gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines.[1]

How the Phylloxera aphid was introduced to Europe remains debated: American vines had been taken to Europe many times before, for reasons including experimentation and trials in grafting, without consideration of the possibility of the introduction of pestilence. While the Phylloxera was thought to have arrived around 1858, it was first recorded in France in 1863, in the former province of Languedoc. It is argued by some that the introduction of such pests as phylloxera was only a problem after the invention of steamships, which allowed a faster journey across the ocean, and consequently allowed pests such as the Phylloxera to survive the trip.

Eventually, following Jules-Émile Planchon's discovery of the Phylloxera as the cause of the blight,[2] and Charles Valentine Riley's confirmation of Planchon's theory, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, two French wine growers, proposed that the European vines be grafted to the resistant American rootstock that were not susceptible to the Phylloxera. While many of the French wine growers disliked this idea, many found themselves with no other option. The method proved to be an effective remedy. The "Reconstitution" (as it was termed) of the many vineyards that had been lost was a slow process, but eventually the wine industry in France was able to return to relative normality.


The grape phylloxera responsible for the failure of the French colonist's plantations in Florida, and probably the later destroyer of the French wine industry.

The aphid that was the central source of the damage in France was first noted following the growing of the European vine Vitis vinifera by French colonists in Florida,[3] in the 16th century. These plantations were a failure, and later experiments with related species of vine also failed, although the reason for these failures appears to have been a mystery to the French colonists. It is known today that it was a species of North American grape phylloxera that caused these early vineyards to fail; the venom injected by the Phylloxera causes a disease that is quickly fatal to the European varieties of vine.[3] The aphids initially went unnoticed by the colonists, despite their great numbers, and the pressure to successfully start a vineyard in America at the time.[4]

It became common knowledge among the settlers that their European vines, of the vinifera variety, simply would not grow in American soil, and they resorted to growing native American plants, and established plantations of these native vines. Exceptions did exist; vinifera plantations were well-established in California before the aphids found their way there.


There have been several theories proposed for why the phylloxera was ignored as the possible cause of the disease that resulted in the failure of so many vineyards, most of which involve the feeding behaviour of the insect, and the way it attacks the roots.[5] The proboscis of the grape phylloxera has both a venom canal from which it injects its deadly venom and a feeding tube through which it takes in vine sap and nutrients. As the toxin from the venom corrodes the root structure of a vine, the sap pressure falls and, as a result, the Phylloxera quickly withdraws its feeding tube and searches for another source of food. Thus, anyone digging up a diseased and dying vine will not find Phylloxera clinging to the roots of the plant.[6]

Journey to Europe

For a few centuries, Europeans had experimented with American vines and plants in their soil. Many varieties were imported from America without regulation, disregarding the possibility of pest transfer and related problems. Jules-Emile Planchon, a French biologist who identified the Phylloxera in the 1860s, maintained that the transfer of American vines and plants into Europe greatly increased between roughly 1858 and 1862, and accidentally introduced Phylloxera to Europe around 1860.[7][8] Others say that the aphid did not enter France until around 1863.[9] The advent of steamships may have been a factor: as they were faster than sailing ships, the Phylloxera were better able to survive the shorter ocean voyage.[4]

The blight

Diagram of the roots of a Vitis vinifera damaged by the aphid.

Initial appearance

The first known documented instance of an attack by the Phylloxera in France was in the village of Pujaut in the department of Gard of the former province of Languedoc,[10] in 1863.[9][11] The wine makers there did not notice the aphids, just as the French colonists in America had not, but they noted the mysterious blight that was damaging their vines. The only description of the disease that was given by these wine growers was that it "reminded them distressingly of 'consumption'"(tuberculosis).[4] The blight quickly spread throughout France, but it was several years before the cause of the disease was determined.[4]

Charles Valentine Riley in 1870 confirmed the theory proposed by Planchon.


Over 40% of French grape vines and vineyards were devastated over a 15-year period from the late 1850s to the mid-1870s. The French economy was badly hit by the blight: many businesses were lost, and wages in the wine industry were cut to less than half. There was also a noticeable trend of migration to places such as Algiers and America. The production of cheap raisins and sugar wines caused the domestic industry several problems that threatened to persist even after the blight itself. The damage to the French economy is estimated to have been slightly over 10 billion Francs.[4]


Research into the cause of the disease began in 1868, when grape growers in Roquemaure, near Pujaut, asked the agricultural society in Montpellier for help.[12] The society appointed a committee including botanist Jules Émile Planchon, local grower Felix Sahut, and the society's president, Gaston Bazille. Sahut soon noticed that the roots of dying vines were infested with "lice"[13] which were sucking sap from the plants. The committee named the new insect Rhizaphis vastatrix.[14] Planchon consulted French entomologists Victor Antoine Signoret and Jules Lichtenstein (Planchon's brother-in-law). Signoret suggested renaming the insect Phylloxera vastatrix, due to its similarity to Phylloxera quercus, which afflicted oak leaves.[15] In 1869, English entomologist John Obadiah Westwood suggested that an insect that had afflicted grape leaves in England circa 1863 was the same insect afflicting grape vines' roots in France.[16] Also in 1869, Lichtenstein suggested that the French insect was an American "vine louse" that had been identified in 1855 by the American entomologist Asa Fitch, which he had named Pemphigus vitifoliae.[17] However, there was a problem with these suggestions: French grape lice were known to infest only a vine's roots, whereas American grape lice were known to infest only its leaves.[18] The British-born American entomologist Charles Valentine Riley had been following news of the outbreak in France. He sent Signoret specimens of American grape lice, which Signoret concluded – in 1870, while he was besieged in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War – were indeed identical to French grape lice.[19] Meanwhile, Planchon and Lichtenstein had found vines with afflicted leaves; lice that were transferred from those leaves to the roots of healthy vines attached themselves to the vines' roots as other French grape lice did.[20] Also in 1870, Riley discovered that American grape lice wintered on American grape vines' roots, which the insects damaged, albeit less than in the case of French vines. Riley repeated Planchon and Lichtenstein's experiment using American grape vines and American grape lice, with similar results.[21] Thus the identity of the French and American grape lice was proven. Nevertheless, for another three years, a powerful majority in France argued that Phylloxera was not the cause of vine disease; instead, vines that were already sickly became infested with Phylloxera. Thus, in their opinion, Phylloxera was merely a consequence of the "true" disease, which remained to be found.[22] Regardless, Riley had discovered American grape varieties that were especially resistant to Phylloxera, and by 1871, French farmers began to import them and to graft French vines onto the American rootstock.[23] (Leo Laliman had suggested importing American vines as early as 1869, but French farmers were reluctant to abandon their traditional varieties. Gaston Bazille then proposed grafting traditional French vines onto American rootstock.[24]) However, importation of American vines did not entirely solve the problem: some American grape varieties struggled in France's chalky soils and succumbed to Phylloxera.[25] By trial and error, American vines were found that could tolerate chalky soils.[26] Meanwhile, entomologists worked to unravel the strange life cycle of Phylloxera, a project that was completed in 1874.[25]


Many growers resorted to their own methods in attempt to resolve the issue. Chemicals and pesticides were used to no avail. In desperation, some growers positioned toads under each vine, and others allowed their poultry to roam free in the hope they would eat the insects.[27] None of these methods was successful.

After Charles Valentine Riley, Missouri's state entomologist, confirmed Planchon's theory, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, two French wine growers, both suggested the possibility that if vinifera vines could be combined, by means of grafting, with the aphid-resistant American vines, then the problem might be solved. Thomas Volney Munson was consulted and provided native Texan rootstocks for grafting. Because of Munson's role, the French government in 1888 sent a delegation to Denison, Texas to confer on him the French Legion of Honor Chevalier du Mérite Agricole.[28]

Another viticulturist, Hermann Jaeger of Neosho, Missouri, was pivotal in the rescue of the French vineyards, as well. Jaeger working with the Missouri state entomologist George Hussman, had already raised vines with resistance to the pest. Indeed, several of the rootstalk varietals T.V. Munson had developed in Texas (Mrs Munson, Muench, and Neva Munson) were grafts with the hardy Neosho hybrids Jaeger had developed in Missouri.[29] Jaeger exported 17 boxcars of his resistant rootstock to France. In 1893, for his contribution to the grape and wine industries of France, Jaeger was awarded the French Legion of Honor - Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur.[2]

The grafting method was tested, and proved a success.[30] The process was colloquially termed "reconstitution" by French wine growers. The cure for the disease caused a great division in the wine industry: some, who became known as the "chemists", rejected the grafting solution and persisted with the use of pesticides and chemicals. Those who became grafters were known as "Americanists", or "wood merchants".[6] Following the demonstrated success of grafting in the 1870s and 1880s the immense task of "reconstituting" the majority of France's vineyards began.


The French government had offered over 320,000 Francs as a reward to whoever could discover a cure for the blight. Having reportedly been the first to suggest the possibility of using the resistant American rootstock, Leo Laliman tried to claim the money, but the French government refused to award it, with the rationale that he had not cured the blight, but rather stopped it from occurring. However, there may have been other reasons for the government denying Laliman the prize: he was mistrusted by several notable parties, and he was thought by many to have originally introduced the pest.[4]

A vineyard in present-day France.

Present day

There is still no remedy, as such, for the Phylloxera, or the disease it brings with it, and it still poses a substantial threat to any vineyard not planted with grafted rootstock.[31] There is only one European grape vine known to be resistant to the Phylloxera, the Assyrtiko vine, which grows on the volcanic Greek island of Santorini; however there is speculation that the actual source of this resistance may arise from the volcanic ash in which the vines grow, and not from the vine itself.[32]

There still exist some vines which have been neither grafted nor destroyed by phylloxera, including some owned by Bollinger.

Notes and references

  1. Punch magazine, 6 September 1890.
  2. G. Bazille, J.-E. Planchon and Sahut (1868) "Sur une maladie de la vigne actuellement régnante en Provence" Archived 21 October 2015 at the Wayback Machine (On a disease of grapevines presently prevailing in Provence), Comptes rendus, 67 : 333–336.
  3. Ellen M. Harkness, Richard P. Vine, Sally J. Linton Winemaking: From Grape Growing to Marketplace. Springer, 2002. ISBN 0-306-47272-4
  4. "The Great French Wine Blight". Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 4 November 2007.
  5. Ted Henzell Australian Agriculture: Its History and Challenges. CSIRO Publishing, 2007. ISBN 0-643-99342-8
  6. Ordish, George. The Great Wine Blight. Pan Macmillan, 1987.
  7. Phylloxera, from The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2004
  8. Campbell, Christy (6 September 2004). Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved for the World.
  9. Viticulture: An Introduction to Commercial Grape Growing for Wine Production. Published 2007. ISBN 0-9514703-1-0
  10. "Languedoc". Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 15 October 2007. Retrieved 4 November 2007.
  11. (Pierre-Adolphe Menudier) (2 August 1879) "The Phylloxera in France," Scientific American, new series, 41 (5) : 72–73; see p. 72. Archived 26 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  12. W. Conner Sorensen, Edward H. Smith, Janet Smith, and Yves Carton (Fall 2008) "Charles V. Riley, France, and Phylloxera," American Entomologist, 54 (3): 134–149. Available on-line at: Entomological Society of America Archived 16 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  13. See:
    • Carton, Yves (2006) "La découvert du Phylloxera en France: Un sujet de polémique: les archives parlent (Hemiptera, Chermesidae)" (The discovery of Phylloxera in France: a controversial subject: the archives speak (Hemiptera, Chermesidae)), Bulletin de la Société entomologique de France, 111 (3) : 305–316. Available on-line at: Research Gate.
    • J. Paul Legros (14 June 1993) "L'invasion du vignoble par le Phylloxéra" (The invasion of the vineyards by Phylloxera), Académie des Sciences et Lettres de Montpellier, Conférence no. 2102 , Bulletin no. 24, pp. 205–222; see especially pp. 218–221. Available on-line at: Académie des Sciences et Lettres de Montpellier Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
    • Félix Sahut, Les Vignes Américaines: Leur greffage et leur taille [American vines: their grafting and their pruning] (Paris, France: A. Delahaye and E. Lecrosnier, 1887), page 29. From p. 29: " … j'eus la pensée de faire arracher des racines sur les vignes déjà atteintes pour les examiner attentivement … En promenant ma loupe sur l'épiderme de ces racines de vigne, je découvris ainsi quelques petits points jaunes que je montrai immédiatement à M. Planchon … " ( … I had the thought of pulling out the roots of the vines that were already affected in order to examine them attentively … By scanning the epidermis of the vine's roots with my lens, I thus discovered some little yellow points that I showed immediately to Mr. Planchon … )
  14. (Bazille et al., 1868), p. 336.
  15. Planchon, J. E. (14 September 1868) "Nouvelles observations sur le puceron de la vigne (Phylloxera vastratix (nuper Rhizaphis, Planch.))" Archived 7 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine (New observations on the vine aphid (Phylloxera vastratix (recently Rhizaphis, Planch.))), Comptes rendus, 67 : 588–594.
  16. Westwood, J. O. (30 January 1869) "New vine diseases," Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 45 : 109.
  17. "Renseignements divers sur le Phylloxera vastatrix (Planchon), la maladie nouvelle de la vigne et les remèdes proposés" (Various information on Phylloxera vastatrix (Planchon), the new vine disease and proposed remedies), Insectologie Agricole, 3 (7) : 184–192 (1869); see especially page 189. Archived 7 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  18. See:
    • Page 74 of: George Gale, "Chapter 4: Saving the vine from Phylloxera: A never-ending battle," pp. 70–91 ; in: Merton Sandler and Roger Pindler, ed.s, Wine: A Scientific Exploration (Boca Raton, Florida, USA: CRC Press, 2002).
    • (Sorensen, 2008), p. 137.
  19. Page 86 Archived 24 June 2016 at the Wayback Machine in: "The grape-leaf gall-louse – Phylloxera vitifoliae, Fitch." in: Charles V. Riley, Third Annual Report on the Noxious, Beneficial and Other Insects of the State of Missouri, … in: Chas. W. Murtfeldt, ed., Sixth Annual Report of the [Missouri] State Board of Agriculture … (Jefferson City, Missouri: Horace Wilcox, 1871).
  20. J. E. Planchon and J. Lichtenstein (11 August 1870) "De l'identité spécifique du phylloxera des feuilles et du phylloxera des racines de la vigne" (The identity of the phylloxera of the leaves and the phylloxera of the roots of vines), Journal d'Agriculture Pratique, 34 (2) : 181–182.
  21. Riley, Third Annual Report on the Noxious, Beneficial and Other Insects of the State of Missouri, … (1871), p. 86.
  22. See:
    • (Gale, 2002), pp. 71–73.
    • (Sorensen et al., 2008), p. 138.
    • (Barral, Jean-Augustin) (20 September 1868) "VI. Nouvelle maladie de la vigne" (VI. New disease of the vine), Journal de l'Agriculture … , 3 : 725–727. From p. 727: Archived 12 February 2022 at the Wayback Machine "Les pucerons que l'on trouve maintenant sur les vignes malades, ne sont donc que des parasites venus après coup." (The aphids that one finds now on the diseased vines are thus only parasites [that have] come afterwards.)
    • Signoret, Victor (1869) "Phylloxera vastatrix, Hemiptère-Homoptère de la famille des Aphidiens, cause prétendue de la maladie actuelle de la vigne," (Phylloxera vastatrix, Hemiptera-Homoptera of the family Aphidiens, so-called cause of the present disease of vines), Annales de la Société Entomologique de France, 4th series, 9 : 549–588.
    • Guérin-Méneville, Félix Édouard (1873) " … note de M. Guérin-Méneville," Comptes rendus des travaux de la Société des Agriculteurs de France, 4 : 650–652. From p. 651: Archived 12 February 2022 at the Wayback Machine "C'est pour cela que, dès le début de l'invasion du Phylloxera, j'ai émis l'opinion que cet insecte, si éminemment parasite, ne pouvait être la cause première de la mort des vignes, mais seulement la conséquence de leur état maladif." (It is for that [reason] that, from the start of the Phylloxera invasion, I have expressed the opinion that this insect, so eminently parasitic, could not be the first cause of the death of the vines, but only the consequence of their sickly condition.)
  23. See:
  24. (Sorensen et al., 2008), p. 139.
  25. (Sorensen et al., 2008), p. 141.
  26. (Gale, 2002), pp. 82–83.
  27. Ken Kincaid, Peter Knaup Chateaux of the Medoc: The Great Wines of Bordeaux. I.B.Tauris, 2000. ISBN 1-86064-450-3. Page 23
  28. Texas State Historical Association Archived 22 February 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  29. "Vineyard and Grape Varieties". Grayson College. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
  30. Allan J. Tobin, Jennie Dusheck Asking about Life. Thomson Brooks/Cole, 2004. ISBN 0-534-40653-X. Page 628
  31. Leo A. Loubère Radicalism in Mediterranean France: Its Rise and Decline, 1848–1914. SUNY Press, 1974. ISBN 0-87395-094-1
  32. Thom Elkjer Adventures in Wine: True Stories of Vineyards and Vintages Around the World. Travelers' Tales, 2002. ISBN 1-885211-80-5
  • Kolleen M. Guy When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity. JHU Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8018-7164-6
  • Fisher, William Edward Garrett (1911). "Phylloxera" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 21 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 547–548.
  • Gregory McNamee Moveable Feasts: The History, Science, And Lore of Food. Greenwood Press, 2006. ISBN 0-275-98931-3
  • California Dept. of Agriculture, California State Commission of Horticulture Biennial Report. Published 1901.

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