Vine-loving aphid

15th October 2004 at 01:00
The wine-bar staff have stopped smiling. They know your purse is empty.

They also know, because you have told them three times, that you only popped in after work for a quick one. "Last orders," they shout, not too loudly. Oh, what the hell. You borrow a fiver and stumble over for another glass of red. If you can remember, drink a toast to Jules-Emile Planchon.

Without him, last orders would have been called more than 100 years ago - for good.

In the 1880s Europe's wine-makers were in despair. Their industry was dying. The cause was a tiny yellow Yankie aphid that dines on vines. Once it and all its friends and relations have settled on a plant, they eat through the roots until the vine keels over and dies. Called Phylloxera vastatrix, the insect made it across the Atlantic on an American vine in 1863. Over the next 20 years it chewed its way through Europe, delighting only teetotallers on the way.

France lost three-quarters of its vines and a panic-striken government offered 300,000 gold francs to anyone with a solution. Not surprisingly, many people had ideas. Flood the vineyards, they said. Not easy, and Phylloxera always came back. Inject the soil with carbon bisulphide, they said. Also not easy, and also not successful.

So they turned to Monsieur Planchon. This young French botanist knew that American vines had a thick bark around their roots which protected them from Phylloxera. His solution was to dig up France's grand vines, the centuries-old pride of the chateaux, and replace them with Yankie varieties. Quelle horreur!

In the end, though, they had no choice. The best French vines were grafted on to American root stocks, though many species became extinct because people only bothered with the most profitable varieties.

It was a costly horreur that could have been averted. The Europeans who colonised America's east coast in the 16th and 17th centuries wanted to sup their familiar wines in the new country, but their plants always died. No one worked out why, even though a little digging would have unearthed Phylloxera enjoying some vulnerable French vine roots.

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