The railways inaugurated a "golden age" of wine production, providing cheap and easy access to urban consumers at a time when real incomes were rising. Per capita consumption in France rose from around 76 liters in 1850–1854 to 168 liters by 1900–1904. In the meantime, however, prosperity had been threatened by three "plagues"—oidium, mildew, and above all phylloxera. The first of these, a fungal parasite, devastated vineyards throughout southern Europe in the 1850s. French wine production fell from around 57 million hectoliters in 1863–1875 to some 31 million by 1879–1892. The solution was to dust the plants with sulphur. As in the case of the devastating potato disease in the 1840s, the cause was probably the import of infected plants from the Americas. Globalization was not without its dangers.
Phylloxera, an aphid-like insect, would represent an even greater danger to the vines. This tiny insect, difficult to observe with the naked eye, probably originated in the eastern United States. It fed on the vine, particularly on its roots, and in the process injected its poisonous saliva into the plants. Its presence became evident from the formation of galls on leaves and roots, followed by defoliation, reduced growth, a decline in grape yields and quality, and the eventual death of the vine as damaged plants also became more susceptible to fungi and the eating habits of other insects. The aphid spread more or less rapidly depending on the vine-type, soil structures, and climate. Vines growing in deep and well-drained soils were likely to survive longest. Following the first reported cases of a mysterious affliction affecting vines near Roquemaure in the Rhône valley in 1863, its spread accelerated throughout southern France, toward Bordeaux (1866), and up the valleys of the Rhône and Saône toward Burgundy (1878), Champagne (1890), and the Paris region (1900). Insect infestation also spread to Switzerland and Portugal (1872), Germany (1874), Austria (1875), Spain (1877), and Italy—reaching Lake Como in August 1879 and Sicily by the following spring. Reports of the appearance of the aphid were also coming from as far afield as the Crimea and Romania. By the end of the century, the insect had destroyed two-thirds of European vineyards.
Initially explanations of the catastrophe varied, with experts blaming "abnormal" climatic conditions, "degenerate" plants, or soil exhaustion. It took time and the development of an international network of investigators to detect the predator and identify causal links. Together with private organizations like the Société des Agriculteurs de France, large landowners, and the PLM Railway company, which had lost so much traffic, the French government sponsored research and offered prizes for a solution. Finally, the aphid was identified in July 1868 and its complex life cycle subsequently investigated by Jules-Emile Planchon (1823–1888), professor of botany at Montpellier. It was evident that the insect was capable of flight but more commonly spread through the soil, on cuttings or even laborers' boots. Planchon was also increasingly convinced that phylloxera had originated in North America and that its spread reflected the growing international traffic in plants, partly in response to the devastation wrought by oidium.
The cause identified, the search for remedies could proceed. However, in 1871, a pessimistic official French report insisted that in the meantime there was no alternative to uprooting and burning infested plants. Subsequent replanting would be accompanied by the application of insecticides that it was hoped would protect the vines. Moreover, following a visit to the United States in 1873, Planchon had insisted, in Darwinian language, that through "a process of natural selection" American vines had acquired resistance. Eventually, replanting would affect 2.5 million hectares. Desperate to avoid the uprooting of their vines, peasants often preferred denial, quack remedies, or prayer. Debts piled up, land was abandoned. Replanting was not only expensive in itself but would be followed by three years without a crop. Slowly the government accepted the need to proceed with compulsory inspection of vineyards suspected of harboring the pest, to offer subsidies (1878) and tax concessions (1887), followed by the abolition of the municipal octroi (entry tax) in 1900, but introduced nothing on the scale of the compulsory insurance against phylloxera and compensation schemes introduced in Switzerland. The favored alternatives to uprooting, the application of carbon bisulphide or potassium sulphocarbonate, appeared effective but the latter in particular depended on access to large volumes of water to get the chemicals to the roots. Only large estates producing expensive high-quality wines could hope to meet the cost of repeated treatment. Flooding to destroy the aphids was also possible, but only where soils were impermeable. It was also noted that sandy soils with high levels of silica were unfriendly to the aphids.
In 1878 and 1879, as the appearance of the mildew fungus added to the misery of growers, in despair French legislators decided to partially end the policy of frontier quarantine by permitting the import of American plants under license into those areas, especially in the Midi and the southwest, in which the vineyards had been devastated already. Replanting could begin on a massive scale, encouraged by the high prices resulting from reduced production. However, the last thing as-yet-unaffected regions wanted was further imports of American vines. Concern was also expressed about the impact on the quality and taste of wine. A more palatable solution emerged, favored by Planchon, which involved grafting European stems on to phylloxera-resistant American roots. It would, though, take time-consuming field trials to identify those American rootstocks that had developed resistance, and to determine which were the most appropriate to particular grape varieties, soils, and climatic conditions. Nevertheless, from the 1890s the practice spread.
As the ravages of the phylloxera insect had spread, as-yet-unaffected regions profited. Imports into France increased substantially, with "French" wines often blended with Algerian, Spanish, and Italian produce or manufactured from raisins and currants. British demand for claret had collapsed in response. In the south in particular, production recovered rapidly as new larger-scale vineyards replaced cereals on the plains. Wider gaps between the rows allowed for the passage of wagons and ploughs in an effort to increase productivity. Nevertheless, capital and labor costs were both substantially higher. Higher-yield grafted plants required more manure and frequent chemical treatment. Yet as imports and higher yields led to substantial growth in the supply of wine, a market glut ensued accompanied by a rapid collapse in prices—in the Midi for example, for vin ordinaire, from thirty francsper hectoliter in the 1880s to eight francs, and falling, by 1901. Phylloxera had merely postponed the onset of overproduction. Under pressure from peasant voters and following serious disorders in the Midi in 1907, the government began to act more decisively through the introduction of tariffs to reduce imports (from 1892) and prevent fraud. As a result, Spanish exports to France fell from a peak of 9.7 million hectoliters in 1881 to 2.2 million by 1900, bringing to an end a period of exceptional prosperity. In 1905, the appellation system was introduced in an effort to protect the reputation of quality wines.
Few vine-growing areas had escaped entirely the devastation and all its costs. In France, pockets of old vines still survive occasionally. In Chile, wine production is based on rootstocks imported from France in the 1850s. Moreover, phylloxera did not disappear. The genetic evolution of both plants and aphids still periodically renews the threat.
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