Crisis 1865: 150 Years of Phylloxera #MWWC18

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The below essay is in response to the monthly wine writing challenge (#mwwc18). The subject matter for this month is ‘crisis’.

I’ve read a lot recently about Bordeaux being in crisis, and how another year has crept by with a less than successful En Primeur campaign. With the top rated vintages of 2009 and 2010 now slipping further away, many drinkers around the world are slowly losing faith in the once exalted wines, and are seeking solace elsewhere. Whilst it is true that the Bordeaux En Primeur campaign only features what amounts to a handful of estates, the knock on effect is felt further afield and, along with the Chinese-Bordeaux love affair significantly cooling of late, ‘Brand Bordeaux’ has taken a knock that will affect any producer in the wider area. Customers are therefore having to be creative about where they spend their wine money, and the net result actually forms a positive, giving a spectrum of other producers an opportunity to increase their sales. With the limited Burgundy production pretty much already spoken for, people are reported to have been gravitating towards the Rhone as a quality French alternative.

My point is thus: From within a crisis, lies opportunity.

In contrast to the big money, sprawling chateau and significant foreign investment we see today, at one time wine production in France could have been a byword for disaster. In fact, disaster is too small a word for it, and crisis is far better suited. The diminishing En Primeur interest is small fry compared to the destruction seen during the years of conflict and occupation of the first and second world wars. Not only were the dreams and potential of an entire generation wiped out in the battlefield, but also those of a younger generation, as many children died in the vineyards collecting the grapes to keep businesses afloat.

France was in serious trouble and, adding insult to injury, the scars of war followed another crisis that was only just being resolved. A crisis that, even 150 years after it first occurred, still influences pretty much every bottle of wine that we drink today. From pretty much anywhere in the world.

Phylloxera.

I’m sure most readers of a wine website will be familiar with its cause, the effects, and the struggle to understand and combat it (If not, there are a handful of very good books that go in to immense detail about it). What these books rarely touch on is the opportunities that came out of the biggest crisis ever to hit winemaking. With hindsight, and with the ability to leave aside the human factor (the vineyards grubbed up, lost fortunes, and broken livelihoods and the debate of whether the end justified the means), Vintners were able to start afresh. With this came the ability to re-choose, or simplify the varieties that they were growing, perhaps even planting to fashions of the day. It gave them the opportunity to re-think their plots, and perhaps move away from the plains on to hillside slopes. It allowed the botanists to further their understanding in to the lifecycle of vineyard pests and what a vine needs to survive. It developed the concept of grafting vines, which is still practised today to be able to quickly change which varietals are being grown. In a perverse way, it even fuelled the notion of a wine nirvana – the untouchable ‘pre-phylloxera’ wine, which creates interest at auction, or provides a unique selling point. Champagne such as Krug’s Clos du Mesnil, for example, comes from a tiny walled and un-grafted plot, and because of this very fact sell for hundreds of pounds per bottle. The even rarer Clos d’Ambonnay can sell for thousands per bottle.

Following Phlloxera, and the destruction of thousands of hectares of French vineyards, cheap wines were imported from Spain and re-labelled as French, in order to satisfy the continuing customer demand. To stop this adulteration and to control production levels, the appellation contróllée system was developed and introduced. This fierce protection of place spearheaded by France has been now copied in virtually every part of the winemaking world, from American AVA’s to the German Pradikat system. If it wasn’t for Phylloxera, the appellation system may never have been developed, certainly not as early as it was, and perhaps even the notion of terroir would not be so prevalent.

Of course the stringent (certainly in France) appellation system has its critics, and I look on with amusement as the infant English wine market already looks to impose strict boundaries on production (based on county divisions as opposed to anything terroir linked). What does make Sussex better than Kent? Perhaps Kent will then try harder than Sussex, and go on to produce better wine?

From one big crisis 150 years ago, come so many opportunities.

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