Phylloxera Aphid: The Bug That Changed The Alcohol World

This is the little bastard that crushed the French wine world but helped bring whiskey to the rest of the world. This is the story of Phylloxera Dactylasphaera vitifoliae.

The French have loved wine for millennia and when they began to colonize America in the 16th century they brought it with them. Both barrels of wine and Europe’s Vitis Vinifera, the European species of plants that produce grapevines. Unfortunately, Vitis Vinifera didn’t fare well in America. No one back then could figure out why all the vines died. However, America already had native species of Vitis that grew fine and so the French made due with that.

Then in the early 1850s someone decided to conduct an experiment and bring the American vines back to France to see how they grew in the South of France. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. Shortly after they planted American vines all the French vines began to die. In the end, up to 70% of all French vines would be destroyed and no one knew why, yet…

It wasn’t until 1874 that anyone finally figured out that this tiny bastard was sucking the life out of the vines. It was an American etymologist who recognized the American Phylloxera, but over here it only ate the leaves of American vines and not the roots like it was doing in France.

Vine Grafting
Two vines being grafted together. Thanks to Riccardo Pastore for the picture

The French resisted the suggested solution of growing American vines and spent another 16 years trying various tactics to kill the Phylloxera. Finally in the 1890s they relented and began grafting American roots onto French vines. That must’ve stung hard for the French.

Not only did the Phylloxera Aphid kill French wine production, it destroyed the cognac and brandy industries as well. Cognac, like Brandy, is made from distilled grapes. Cognac had been one of the most popular spirits of the day until the Phylloxera came and destroyed the vines.

Where things get interesting for the rest of the alcohol world is that, according to Tasting Whiskey, Whiskey trumped cognac as a preferred beverage once cognac became harder to get. This chart from Google Ngram Viewer shows the spike in interest in Whiskey, or Whisky, during that time period.Whiskey vs Cognac in the 1800s

Phylloxera can’t take full credit for this change as American whiskey began to become a real industry, Parliament eased restrictions on Scotch whisky, and they both enjoyed the creation of the column still in the preceding decades.

That little bastard and some cousins are still out and about occasionally destroying vineyards as happened in California’s Napa Valley during the 90’s. Maybe that’s why craft beer boomed in California in the mid-90’s as well? Google’s Ngram viewer isn’t any help here since craft beer is barely a blip compared to the continued popularity of wine, but I’d like to think Phylloxera Dactylasphaera vitifoliae helped us out.

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