Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Phylloxera on the March?

The Great French Wine Blight - The French countryside is dotted with Phylloxera crosses. Since nothing else appeared to stop its inexorable march, some viticulturists turned to religion in a desperate attempt to rid the vines of this plague.

History Repeats?



There is a secret risk that could destroy the most valuable asset we have. There is a pest that can destroy old vines on their own roots. By historical accident the old vineyards in McLaren Vale, the Barossa, the Clare and Eden Valleys and Coonawarra have become the great survivors of this hidden plague.

These old vines have helped these wine regions continues to produce wines that are some of the best in the world. Wine producers like Wendouree, Henschke, Teusner, Kay Brothers and hundreds of grape growers are guardians of priceless old vines. These vines are now threatened.

The risk comes from a little aphid that only lives on the roots of grapevines, Phylloxera.

"THE PHYLLOXERA, A TRUE GOURMET, FINDS OUT THE BEST VINEYARDS AND ATTACHES ITSELF TO THE BEST WINES." Cartoon from Punch, September 6, 1890, by Edward Linley Sambourne (January 4, 1844–August 3, 1910).
The threat has always been with us (the Phylloxera aphid arrived in Australia circa 1877) but since it remained, against the odds, confined to the North Eastern Victoria and Nagambie areas for so long, it has dropped off many wine growers radars. Maybe it's the recent increase in plantings which has reduced the distance between vineyards, or maybe people became too casual with the protocols after getting away with living with the threat for so long but something has changed and Phylloxera has now quickly become a more immediate threat to all own rooted vineyards in Australia.

Phylloxera represents a clear and present danger to Australian vineyards now. For how serious this could be we only need to look back to history to show us how.

Phylloxera was thought to have arrived into Europe sometime around 1858, or 1860. It was introduced from North America. It can hardly be seen with the naked eye. There had been trade in grape stock between the two continents for over two hundred years previous, but no one had notice the grape aphid.

It is likely Phylloxera only became a problem in France after the invention of steamships. This new technology allowed a fast journey across the Atlantic ocean, allowing the Phylloxera to survive the trip. An increase in fast travel and between the continents made its introduction inevitable.

The French initially did not know what Phylloxera was doing to there vines, they just saw the effect, a sudden vine death which they likened to consumption. In 1863 the first cases had turned up in the old region of Languedoc.

They called it wine blight. This wine blight caused the entire course of French industry to change and is estimated to have cost double the repatriations the French had to supply Prussia after their losing war of 1870.

Such was Phylloxera speed and consequence as it spread through France and the rest of Europe it was likened to a disease. It was known as consumption as, like tuberculous, it consumed the vines.
For many this might seem like an ancient history lesson, irrelevant with the pressures of a recession and environmental concerns like droughts and fires, but the parallels between the past and present seem obvious to me.

I am scared of a repeat. 

Around Australia phylloxera is clearly being mobilised. Previously confined to North Eastern Victoria Phylloxera is on the march. As mentioned Phylloxera was first detected in Australia in 1877, in Geelong, and was responsible for the near destruction of the Victorian wine industry in the 1880s. Until fairly recently it was confined to small areas in central Victoria (Nagambie, Upton, Mooroopna) and northeast Victoria (Rutherglen, King Valley), in southeast New South Wales (Corowa) and in Camden and Cumberland near Sydney. However, there have been several detections in central Victoria in the past 10 years (Buckland Valley 2003, Ovens Valley 2003, Murchison 2006, Yarra Valley 2006, Mansfield 2010).


1.   RED: Phylloxera Infested Zone (PIZ) known to have phylloxera
2.   GREEN: Phylloxera Exclusion Zone (PEZ) known to be free from phylloxera
3.   CREAM: Phylloxera Risk Zone (PRZ) phylloxera status unknown (but never detected)

South Australia now faces the imminent arrive of the blight. While their is a slight risk an increase in travel and tourism between our wine regions seeing Phylloxera breaking out of its containment in Victoria the main risk come from the wine industry itself. 

Recent changes to quarantine regulations are making it easier to transport grapevine material and machinery material from any PEZ (green zone in the map above) to any other PEZ. While this may seem well and good many of the Victorian PEZ regions have only recently been declared Phylloxera free. This has been the result of survey work conducted by the Victoria Department of Primary Industry (DPI).

For whose benefit is this change? Why the need to bring grapes and machinery direct from interstate, from regions which sit right alongside known Phylloxera Infested Zones (Red zones), into the heart of SA?

I have heard it suggested that large winegrowing companies will benefit moving grapes and machinery around the country, by making small savings in convenience, cost & paperwork. Victorian harvester companies moving machinery into SA will also benefit. The Victorian DPI will justify the millions of dollars spent on Phylloxera surveys. Australian Vine Improvement Association assists its nursery interests in selling material freely. 

It is not popular for me to say this, but I agree. 

Michelton, Vic (c) Phylloxera; Grape Industry Board of South Australia.
If phylloxera arrives from Victoria in my lifetime, I want to say that I did everything I could to highlight the risk of changing the rules  to place SA at greater risk.

I fear that as financial pressure is put on wine businesses corners are being cut. Vineyard hygiene is being cut back. This short term financial distraction could let a long term destruction slip through into South Australia.

An introduction of the aphid would cause a modern upset that would could rival the original for economic catastrophe. The original outbreak saw 40% of French vineyards 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. Farmers were ruined.

Waves of immigrants moved to California and Algiers to start farming anew.

Remember that the rapid spread of the pest was in an era where the only fast travel between wine regions was by train, or river barge. It is notable that the spread of Phylloxera initially followed the main river valley of the Rhone from Languedoc to the centre of France.

Ironically in Tuscany the railways were blamed for the scourge. They called the railway a devils tool and thought it unnatural because it laid long tracks of iron into the soil. The Tuscan grape growers ripped up several miles of track in fear.

After a start in the Rhone Valley, the disease spread across the French Alps and across the Pyrenees. Bordeaux was also breached and by 1884 over a million hectares of French vineyards were dead or dying. As the plague spread, church bells were rung in alarm, anti-pest syndicates were formed, and a burn-or-perish approach was regretfully adopted.

It was not until 1868 that the French biologist Jules- Emile Planchon and two colleagues, chanced upon a group of Phylloxera sucking from the roots of a plant that a theory on the blight's cause by the Phylloxera was formed.

Once the cause of the problem was discovered, there was no apparent solution. A large cash prize was offered for a cure and many off-the-wall ideas were tested, but the prize was never awarded.

Removing and burning infested vines was only marginally effective in slowing the spread.

The only option to keep the wine industry going was suggested by two french wine growers, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, who both felt if European vines could be combined, by means of grafting, with the Phylloxera-resistant American vines, then the problem might be solved.

The process was colloquially termed "reconstitution" by French wine growers.

If Phylloxera came to McLaren Vale today, this remains the only solution. Our vineyards would have to be pulled up and replanted as grafted vines. Classic vineyards like Hill of Grace in the Eden Valley would have to be reconstituted because they will die from Phylloxera eating the vines roots.

A more recent lesson in the destructive abilities of Phylloxera is occurring now. Attempts in the 1960s by the viticulturists of the University of California to replace older rootstocks with the ominously named AxR1 rootstock. AxR1 performed wonderfully for a while, but a new strain of Phylloxera overcame its resistance. California experienced its own rapid outbreak, only now satellite and DNA technology was available to track the spread of infection, and Californian vineyards are now in the process of replanting at an estimated cost of between half a billion and a billion dollars.

While we do have the advantage, in modern times, in that we now know what causes the death of vines and how Phylloxera can be detected, you cannot put the gene back in the bottle. South Australia's hundred year old vineyards could be chewed up like their French forebears.

It would be introduced accidentally by a tourists boot or more likely a dirty tractor tire. It would take a few years to be noticed. We might have an advanced technology like satellite imagery to track its progress, but we would stand little better chance than out 19th Century compatriots of stopping a huge economic upheaval to an already stressed industry.

Like the steamships of old, the trucks on the highways could also bring with them a pest that can't be shaken - a ruinous aphid to claim the oldest remaining vines in the world.

1 comment:

Philip White said...

Yes to everything. I wonder what phylloxera protocols were observed in the Yarra Valley bushfires. Trucks with wet tyres, no time to read the signage, wedding guests out in the vineyards with muddy shoes from the water they were throwing about etc. Did we send firetrucks from SA to the Yarra? Or any of Victoria's phylloxera zones?