Salvation of the Wine

Perhaps you have heard, wine is really important to the French. Can you imagine a France without wine? That could easily have happened 150 years ago, all because of an invasive species.

In 1860, the vineyards of Europe were invaded by a root aphid from North America, called Phylloxera. In its native range, Phylloxera causes relatively little damage, but in Europe, with acres and acres of susceptible Vitis vinifera, the major cultivated grape species, its population exploded. In its wake, the vineyards of France rotted. For salvation, the Europeans needed resistant rootstock – with that, the elite grape cultivars of Europe could be grafted on, with no change to the quality of the grape.  For salvation, the French went to Texas.

Texas is in fact a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ for the grape genus; though Vitis vinifera is native to Western Asia, the highest concentration of Vitis species is in North America, with at least 12 species in Texas. And because most of these species have adapted to the presence of Phylloxera, the rootstocks they could provide were resistant to the root aphid. Even now, most European grapes are grafted to American rootstocks. Statues were made to commemorate the salvation of the European wine industry. This one, at the Ecole Viticulture de Montpellier in Montpellier, France, recognizes the contribution of Gustave Foex, the head of the School of Viticulture. The young woman represents the resistant American rootstock, supporting the weakened European vines.

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