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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Phylloxera---the Black Plague for Vineyards

Say the word phylloxera to a winemaker and it’s akin to a death sentence for his wines.  Phylloxera (roughly pronounced  phil - ox - syrah) is a small louse that attacks the roots of the grape vine.  By the time the plant begins to show signs of disease above ground, it’s too late.   As it spreads very quickly from plant to plant, and from vineyard to vineyard, entire wine regions can be wiped out in a flash.

Nearly all vineyards in Europe succumbed to phylloxera in the late 1800’s.  Can you imagine 70-90% of all the vineyards in Europe destroyed by a microscopic bug?  What may be equally surprising is that the only cure for the horrible plague was to replant the European vines on American root stock---American vines were resistant to phylloxera.

Those of you who have been to Bordeaux with us may recall the colorful rose bushes planted at the ends of the rows of vines.  While most visitors think this is an aesthetic touch, the roses were originally planted as an “early warning system” for phylloxera.  In the early 1900’s, it was believed that the rose bush was attacked first by phylloxera, the grape vine second.  Thus, when roses began to die they became “the canary in the mineshaft” for grape growers.  Science now tells us that this is not true.  Once the rose shows signs of phylloxera, the grape vine is already infected and it’s too late.

Phylloxera first appeared in Bordeaux in the 1860’s.  So why get so excited about a plague that took place >150 years ago?   Phylloxera is still with us.  Although modern science has found ways to deal with phylloxera, the louse continues to mutate.  A different strain of phylloxera wreaked havoc on Napa Valley in the 1980’s when it destroyed thousands of acres of vineyards.  This  “sleeping giant” lies in wait and certainly gives new meaning to “dying on the vine.”


  1. I love this post! Don't forget about what used to be the 6th Bordeaux red grape varietal, Carmenere, that was wiped out by Phylloxera.

  2. I'm just back from Italy, Austin, and you raise a good point! Thankfully, the varietal was taken to Chile prior to phylloxera...and it's now Chile's signature grape.