The Death of Grapes came unexpectedly to France. In 1863, the first vines began to die inexplicably across the southern Rhone valley. The epidemic spread so rapidly that by 1889 between two thirds and nine tenths of French vineyards had been destroyed. The cause? Phylloxera aphids had been introduced unwittingly to Europe by avid Victorian botanists who had collected specimens of American vines in the 1850s. The aphids destroyed the roots of the European vines. Wine growers did their best, burying live toads under each vine to draw out the “poison”, but to no avail. There is still no cure even today.
The impact on the French economy was huge. It is estimated that the growth of the children of wine growers was restricted by 1 cm as a consequence of the poverty they endured.
Phylloxera is native to North America where vines had managed to develop a degree of immunity and it was from North America that a partial solution was found. Resistant rootstocks were taken to France where they were grafted with traditional grape varieties. Grapes and the wine industry were thereby saved, but at the cost that few European vines are now cultivated from their own authentic roots.
Close to where I live is Plaimont Producteurs, a marvellous wine co-operative with an excellent managing director, Olivier Bourdet-Pees. His cheerful, intelligent face is usually to be seen under the large black beret worn by so many in SW France. I would love to wear one myself, but I would feel too much like an extra from Allo Allo. Olivier has no such inhibitions. In the photo you will see Olivier caressing some ungrafted tannat grape rootstocks planted in 1871 and which have miraculously survived the phylloxera epidemic unscathed. If you are lucky, each year you can buy one of the few bottles of wine produced from these ancient ungrafted vines. We will be trying next year to add a few to our own collection.
However, Olivier’s optimism became clouded when the conversation turned to the Death of Grapes of our own times, largely unreported and unrecognised. Here in Gascony we are lucky. We still have ancient grape varieties such as tannat, egiodola, ugni blanc, and gros manseng which add so much authenticity, richness and variety to our local wines. Wine makers love to blend 4 or 5 grape varieties to create originality and distinctiveness to the flavour of the wines.
At least here in Gascony we have not been washed over by a tsunami of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot grigio (in order, the world’s top three single-varietal whites) or merlot, shiraz, tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon (the top four reds).
But Olivier pointed out the dangers which have come with the globalisation of the wine market since the end of the Second World. “In 1950 in France,” said Olivier, “the most popular 20 grapes – merlot, cabernet, syrah, chardonnay and so on – made up only 50 per cent of the vineyard. Now those same 20 varieties account for 93 per cent. It’s a motorway of taste. It’s difficult to explain, and difficult to slow.”
Data from the Wine Economics Research Centre in Adelaide demonstrates that this is not just a post-war phenomenon – grape diversity is still in decline in the 21st century, not just in France but globally. In 2010, 12 of the 44 countries studied had more than one-third of their vineyards covered with just one of the popular grape varieties.
We are at risk of a new Death of Grapes, a loss of variety and of taste. Restaurant wine lists offer apparent endless choice – 20 types of Sauvignon Blanc, each jostling to be brilliantly bright and in your face – but it is a choice between brittle fragments of the same uniformity. Like those ancient roots caressed by Olivier, we need to hold on to the treasures of our wine inheritance.