Introduced from the United States, the blight devastated vineyards for over 30 years before they recuperated and the Champagne region finally recovered the familiar landscapes of today. 

The current Sars-Cov 2 pandemic has reminded us of how fragile the world is and how the movement of both people and merchandise can trigger the spread of disease. This has been true since the beginning of time. The plant world is not left unscathed. Plane trees and olive trees have recently fallen victim to the spread of diseases previously considered to be exotic. The vineyards in France were devastated by the arrival in the last part of the 19th century of the phylloxera, a simple aphid-like insect introduced from the United States, to which the European vines had not developed any natural resistance. The phylloxera burrow into the vines and suck the sap, transferring the disease of the same name. Once infested by the aphids, the vine survives only three more years before dying. This dieback is inevitable once the aphids attack the vine roots. Endemic to the United States, phylloxera were accidentally introduced to Great Britain by European plant breeders and importers.

Phylloxera ©DR
Archive © Unions des Maisons de Champagne

A slow progression
Phylloxera first infected south-eastern France around 1861/63, before slowly moving northwards towards the Bordeaux region in 1868, the Rhone Valley in 1871, Burgundy in 1878, and finally arriving in Champagne in 1890. First identified in Trélou-sur-Marne, the scourge had infected the entire region just four years later. The shock was tremendous since there was apparently no remedy for stamping out the disease. It did however have some trouble taking hold in the Marne department, affecting only several plots here and there, before the cases exploded. With only 24 hectares impacted in 1898, 560 hectares had been infected just two years later. Growers tried to disinfect the vineyards by tearing out and burning vines or spreading massive amounts of carbon disulphide. Nothing worked. The phylloxera would bring about in Champagne, as well as elsewhere, the ruin of many smaller growers eking out a modest living from several acres of vines. Within 30 years, wine production in France fell by almost half, decreasing from 41 to 23 million hectolitres.

Vines before the Champagne landscape was transformed ©DR
Growers spreading carbon disulphide © DR

Reinventing vineyards
The battle against the disease continued up until World War I without ever stopping the pest’s slow progression. Already in 1880, the idea was mentioned of using American phylloxera-resistant grapevines to regenerate French vineyards. Following several experiments at the very end of the 19th century, this was authorised in the Marne area in 1901. These experiments enabled growers to assess the resistance as well as the quality of production. Cuttings from French vines were grafted onto American vine stock intended to gradually replace ungrafted vines. Other than several rare exceptions, these will inevitably disappear since they cannot develop resistance to the pest. As a result, this vineyard has changed immensely. Until this point, all vines were cultivated rather haphazardly; in disorder, in line with successive marcottings or layerings. Grafted stock does not lend itself to this practice and it was only when vines were replaced that trellised rows were introduced, making it possible to allow horses to travel between rows and enabling something other than manual cultivation. The Champagne landscapes were, as a result, completely transformed.

Text : Cyrille Jouanno