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Book Review – Phylloxera, By Christy Campbell

By June 4, 2012No Comments

This is the story of ‘How Wine was Saved for the World’ as this book is sub-titled, and recounts how the phylloxera vastatrix root sucking aphid devastated the vineyards of France in the late nineteenth century and subsequently spread across the world wherever vitis vinifera was planted to make classical wine. Due to the determined efforts of botanical and entomological heroes, largely unrecognised by modern wine drinkers, wine as we know it in all possibility would not exist.

The appearance of the aphid can be traced back to the walled vineyard of M. Borty at 12 rue Longue, Roquemaure, near Avignon in the Gard in 1865, a merchant who imported and planted American vines there. Vines around began to die, from causes unknown. Within 30 years, all of France was phylloxerated, and the vine louse had crossed borders and oceans to other continents.

The style of the book taken by author Christy Campbell is near that of a historical novel, with aspects of a mystery and subtly makes a commentary on culture, science and social forces prevalent at the time. Much of his story relates the statements and documents made at the time in the language used and thus captures the feelings and mood then, and this requires some attentiveness to follow the plots, twists and turns of the events, and to take in the scope of the tale. The book is divided into three parts: Denial, Anger and Acceptance, which describes the recurrent behaviour of the vignerons and winegrowing industry wherever phylloxera attacked, but also how the theme how the wine world at large has managed to deal with the disaster.

It is incredible to think that just a century and a half ago, superstition and unreasoned thinking held as much, if not greater sway than the scientific method. This was one of the causes of denial and the slow reaction in recognising the threat that phylloxera posed. Bureaucracy, a constant in any time hindered the research into the mechanisms of how the aphid lived and how to counter it. Acceptance of infection of phylloxera and means to bypass the aphid by grafting vinifera onto American-based rootstock was hampered by prejudice and anger against anything American because of the disbelief that a cure could come from the country that was ironically the cause.

The story of the gradual understanding of the complex life-cycle of the aphid makes up a major portion of the book and indeed is a most valuable part of it. And also of great interest are the treatments devised at the time, the views of the sulfuristes who based their defences on chemical countermeasures and the submersionistes who flooded their vineyards to drown the aphid. Equally fascinating is the realisation the only effective method of rescuing vinifera wine was by the use of American-originating rootstock that was resistant to phylloxera. This was not easy and remains an essential part of research today, keeping ahead of the evolving aphid and its growing ability to attack existing plants previously regarded as impervious. This remains the chilling threat to modern wine.

In main, the book follows the work of Jules-Emile Planchon, a professor of botany at Montpellier who can be regarded as the man who identified the mechanisms of phylloxera and how to fight it. He was assisted by his brother-in-law Jules Lichenstein. American entomologist Charles Valentine Riley and French equivalents Louis Vialla and the similarly named Pierre Viala played major roles. Another interesting man, a Leo Laliman of Bordeaux, claimed he was the first to suggest grafting onto American rootstock as a cure, something he also recommended to combat the ravages of odium a few years before. Laliman is also accused as one of the first people who imported American vines into Bordeaux, and is thus responsible for the spread of phylloxera into the region. Author Campbell introduces many such characters in the book, but can only build in a limited amount of characterisation.

The book is one that has appeal across a fairly wide audience due to its capture of the period and the expose of the work of the key characters. From a wine lovers’ perspective, it is an engaging and good read in a style that is very different to what one might normally peruse to obtain an understanding of the phylloxera pest. It does give the reader a properly frightening view of the disaster that afflicted the wine world then, and leaves them with the notion of the damage that could still happen if the wine guardians relax their guard today.
Phylloxera, By Christy Campbell
Harper Perennial, London, 2004, ISBN 0-00-711536-9
RRP GBP£8.99

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