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What is Phylloxera?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2014
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Grape phylloxera, Daktulosphaira vitifoiae, is a type of insect related to the aphid. The insect is greatly feared by grape growers, as the pest can devour the roots and leaves of grape vines. In the 19th century, the centuries-old French wine industry was nearly destroyed by the insects, in an incident known as the Great French Wine Blight.

The phylloxera is a tiny creature with a greenish color. Interestingly, some generations of the insect are born with wings, while others are not. Wingless generations are believed to feed on the roots of grape vines, causing irreparable damage and eventually killing the vine. The insects are notoriously shadowy, as by the time root damage is discovered the colonies of creatures have moved on to an entirely different location. This unfortunately meant that the cause of the Great French Wine Blight was unknown for several years, as the insects could not be linked to the dying vines.

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The grape phylloxera is believed to be North American in origin, and usually not fatal to North American grape varieties. The first signs of the destructive potential of the creatures came in the 16th century, when French settlers in the Florida region of North America attempted to plant European grape vines for cultivation. Year after year, the vines mysteriously died off. Originally, the insects were restricted to the East and South regions of the America, but they slowly spread westward. Until the 1870s, European vines grew well in California, but during that decade the phylloxera reached the area and caused almost total destruction of the crop.

Sometime in the 19th century, the insects were transported to Europe through ship travels. Most experts believe that it first arrived in the mid 1860s, when new steam ship technology allowed an Atlantic crossing fast enough for the insects to survive. Almost immediately, the phylloxera began taking its toll on French wines. Vines would suddenly turn yellow, then redden and die. Not until 1868, when the plague was already well underway, was the phylloxera identified as the cause.

In the early 1870s, an ingenuous solution was contrived by several independent viticulturalists. By grafting the European vines onto resistant North American rootstock, the resulting hybrids could successfully survive the attacks. By the time the grafting processes were complete, France had lost nearly two-thirds of its vines to the insects.

In the 1970s and 1980s, American, South American and some New Zealand vineyards were frequently planted with a rootstock known as AXR1. While this hybrid was meant to combat serious fungal issues common in some grapes, it was unfortunately not resistant to insect attack. Millions and possible billions of US dollars are believed to have been lost in the resulting destruction by phylloxera. As of 2008, replanting efforts to replace AXR1 vineyards are still not complete.

Today, most grape vines are made with phylloxera resistant roots. The insect itself remains a dangerous threat to any ungrafted or unprotected vines. As it has spread throughout most of the grape-growing continents, it remains able and ready to strike any vulnerable vineyards.

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