The Horrible March of the Wine Aphid... Phylloxera

The Great French Wine Blight - The French countryside is dotted with Phylloxera crosses. Since nothing else appeared to stop its inexorable march, some viticulteurs turned to religion in a desperate attempt to rid the vines of this plague.

History Repeats?

There is a secret risk that could destroy the most valuable asset we have. There is a pest that can destroy old vines on their own roots. By historical accident the old vineyards in McLaren Vale, the Barossa, the Clare and Eden Valleys and Coonawarra have become the great survivors of this hidden plague.

These old vines have helped these wine regions continues to produce wines that are some of the best in the world. Wine producers like Wendouree, Henschke, Teusner, Kay Brothers and hundreds of grape growers are guardians of priceless old vines. These vines are now threatened.

The risk comes from a little aphid that only lives on the roots of grapevines, Phylloxera.

"THE PHYLLOXERA, A TRUE GOURMET, FINDS OUT THE BEST VINEYARDS AND ATTACHES ITSELF TO THE BEST WINES." Cartoon from Punch, September 6, 1890, by Edward Linley Sambourne (January 4, 1844–August 3, 1910).
The threat has always been with us (the Phylloxera aphid arrived in Australia circa 1877) but since it remained, against the odds, confined to the North Eastern Victoria and Nagambie areas for so long, it has dropped off many wine growers radars. Maybe it's the recent increase in plantings which has reduced the distance between vineyards, or maybe people became too casual with the protocols after getting away with living with the threat for so long but something has changed and Phylloxera has now quickly become a more immediate threat to all own rooted vineyards in Australia.

Phylloxera represents a clear and present danger to Australian vineyards now. For how serious this could be we only need to look back to history to show us how.

Phylloxera was thought to have arrived into Europe sometime around 1858, or 1860. It was introduced from North America. It can hardly be seen with the naked eye. There had been trade in grape stock between the two continents for over two hundred years previous, but no one had notice the grape aphid.

It is likely Phylloxera only became a problem in France after the invention of steamships. This new technology allowed a fast journey across the Atlantic ocean, allowing the Phylloxera to survive the trip. An increase in fast travel and between the continents made its introduction inevitable.

The French initially did not know what Phylloxera was doing to there vines, they just saw the effect, a sudden vine death which they likened to consumption. In 1863 the first cases had turned up in the old region of Languedoc.

They called it wine blight. This wine blight caused the entire course of French industry to change and is estimated to have cost double the repatriations the French had to supply Prussia after their losing war of 1870.

Such was Phylloxera speed and consequence as it spread through France and the rest of Europe it was likened to the black plague.
For many this might seem like an ancient history lesson, irrelevant with the pressures of a recession and environmental concerns like droughts and fires, but the parallels between the past and present seem obvious to me.

I am scared of a repeat. 

Around Australia phylloxera is clearly being mobilised. Previously confined to North Eastern Victoria Phylloxera is on the march. As mentioned Phylloxera was first detected in Australia in 1877, in Geelong, and was responsible for the near destruction of the Victorian wine industry in the 1880s. Until fairly recently it was confined to small areas in central Victoria (Nagambie, Upton, Mooroopna) and northeast Victoria (Rutherglen, King Valley), in southeast New South Wales (Corowa) and in Camden and Cumberland near Sydney. However, there have been several detections in central Victoria in the past 10 years (Buckland Valley 2003, Ovens Valley 2003, Murchison 2006, Yarra Valley 2006, Mansfield 2010).

1.   RED: Phylloxera Infested Zone (PIZ) known to have phylloxera
2.   GREEN: Phylloxera Exclusion Zone (PEZ) known to be free from phylloxera
3.   CREAM: Phylloxera Risk Zone (PRZ) phylloxera status unknown (but never detected)

South Australia now faces the imminent arrive of the blight. While their is a slight risk an increase in travel and tourism between our wine regions seeing Phylloxera breaking out of its containment in Victoria the main risk come from the wine industry itself. 

Recent changes to quarantine regulations are making it easier to transport grapevine material and machinery material from any PEZ (green zone in the map above) to any other PEZ. While this may seem well and good many of the Victorian PEZ regions have only recently been declared Phylloxera free. This has been the result of survey work conducted by the Victoria Department of Primary Industry (DPI).

For whose benefit is this change? Why the need to bring grapes and machinery direct from interstate, from regions which sit right alongside known Phylloxera Infested Zones (Red zones), into the heart of SA?

I have heard it suggested that large winegrowing companies will benefit moving grapes and machinery around the country, by making small savings in convenience, cost & paperwork. Victorian harvester companies moving machinery into SA will also benefit. The Victorian DPI will justify the millions of dollars spent on Phylloxera surveys. Australian Vine Improvement Association assists its nursery interests in selling material freely. 

It is not popular for me to say this, but I agree. 

Michelton, Vic (c) Phylloxera; Grape Industry Board of South Australia.
If phylloxera arrives from Victoria in my lifetime, I want to say that I did everything I could to highlight the risk of changing the rules  to place SA at greater risk.

I fear that as financial pressure is put on wine businesses corners are being cut. Vineyard hygiene is being cut back. This short term financial distraction could let a long term destruction slip through into South Australia.

An introduction of the aphid would cause a modern upset that would could rival the original for economic catastrophe. The original outbreak saw 40% of French vineyards devastated over a 15 year period, from the late 1850s to the mid 1870s. The French economy was badly hit by the blight; many businesses were lost, and wages in the wine industry were cut to less than half. Farmers were ruined.

Waves of immigrants moved to California and Algiers to start farming anew.

Remember that the rapid spread of the pest was in an era where the only fast travel between wine regions was by train, or river barge. It is notable that the spread of Phylloxera initially followed the main river valley of the Rhone from Languedoc to the centre of France.

Ironically in Tuscany the railways were blamed for the scourge. They called the railway a devils tool and thought it unnatural because it laid long tracks of iron into the soil. The Tuscan grape growers ripped up several miles of track in fear.

After a start in the Rhone Valley, the disease spread across the French Alps and across the Pyrenees. Bordeaux was also breached and by 1884 over a million hectares of French vineyards were dead or dying. As the plague spread, church bells were rung in alarm, anti-pest syndicates were formed, and a burn-or-perish approach was regretfully adopted.

It was not until 1868 that the French biologist Jules- Emile Planchon and two colleagues, chanced upon a group of Phylloxera sucking from the roots of a plant that a theory on the blight's cause by the Phylloxera was formed.

Once the cause of the problem was discovered, there was no apparent solution. A large cash prize was offered for a cure and many off-the-wall ideas were tested, but the prize was never awarded.

Removing and burning infested vines was only marginally effective in slowing the spread.

The only option to keep the wine industry going was suggested by two french wine growers, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, who both felt if European vines could be combined, by means of grafting, with the Phylloxera-resistant American vines, then the problem might be solved.

The process was colloquially termed "reconstitution" by French wine growers.

If Phylloxera came to McLaren Vale today, this remains the only solution. Our vineyards would have to be pulled up and replanted as grafted vines. Classic vineyards like Hill of Grace in the Eden Valley would have to be reconstituted because they will die from Phylloxera eating the vines roots.

A more recent lesson in the destructive abilities of Phylloxera is occurring now. Attempts in the 1960s by the viticulturists of the University of California to replace older rootstocks with the ominously named AxR1 rootstock. AxR1 performed wonderfully for a while, but a new strain of Phylloxera overcame its resistance. California experienced its own rapid outbreak, only now satellite and DNA technology was available to track the spread of infection, and Californian vineyards are now in the process of replanting at an estimated cost of between half a billion and a billion dollars.

While we do have the advantage, in modern times, in that we now know what causes the death of vines and how Phylloxera can be detected, you cannot put the gene back in the bottle. South Australia's hundred year old vineyards could be chewed up like their French forebears.

It would be introduced accidentally by a tourists boot or more likely a dirty tractor tire. It would take a few years to be noticed. We might have an advanced technology like satellite imagery to track its progress, but we would stand little better chance than out 19th Century compatriots of stopping a huge economic upheaval to an already stressed industry.

Like the steamships of old, the trucks on the highways could also bring with them a pest that can't be shaken - a ruinous aphid to claim the oldest remaining vines in the world.


jeremy said…
Thank you for posting that.

A couple of questions?

Does this mean you would advocate tighter measures with regards to visitors, both at cellar doors and especially vineyards? (And if it has to be done, it has to be done IMHO- we all love to visit these places and see the actual vines but not at the risk of killing them. The general public are ill informed on protective measures when touring winerys)

And I take it you are a firm believer that older vines produce better wine, quite seperate from their indisputable heritage value?


Jeremy Pringle said…
Ok, I've seen your answer for the second question over at Landmark, so excuse it being redundant.


James Hook said…
Hi Jeremy,

I would argue for a greater awareness of the issue. I would argue Phylloxera needs to have a higher awareness in the general public than Fruitfly. A Fruitfly style campaign through air travel etc will help.

Need to protect old vines for heritage value because they can't be replaced.

James Hook said…
Quote from Helen on Boozemonkey...

Have just read James' phylloxera blog. As a scientist and person who once spent a good deal of time looking for (and once finding) the dreaded insect I would suggest that tourists are the people least likely to br responsible for spreading the bug. It is easy to fence a vineyard to keep casual cellar door strollers out without making the vineyard look like a prison. In my opinion the people most likely to spread the bug are members of the industry who allow unclean machinery (including post hole diggers etc.) into their vineyards, or "borrow" equipment in a crisis and forget to wash it, let industry visitors drive and or walk down the rows, or use labour hire gangs that move from vineyard to vineyard. Quarantine is our most effective weapon in pest and disease control, but it requires vigilance. So, while tourists are a minor threat, I have observed that the spread of phylloxera has coincided with the corporatisation of the industry and the advent of labour hire gangs, both of which increase the number of people moving between vineyards and thus the risk that somebody will forget to clean boots and/or equipment, or worse still, not consider it important. Don't forget, phylloxera are parthenogenic and can reproduce without mating. It only takes one! On those grounds I would continue to encourage tourists, industry needs them in these hard times, but don't let them wander into the vineyard unless they wash their boots! And get a good set of enforceable protocols for industry people in your vineyards including consultants and company viticulturists and wine makers.
James Hook said…
Helen says...

Yes, the tour down under and similar events do pose more of a risk than the usual tourist and industry needs to take sensible (not paranoid) precautions. The question is always how much information to provide to the public and what precautions are effective without driving customers away.... As for the Tour Down Under, I think the participants of that type of event need to be fully informed and their cooperation sought. Alll they need do is change their shoes or be asked to bring footwear that will stand up to the rigours of chlorine bleach. Good's an important issue that needs to handled well.
Anonymous said…
Fantastic post and a good lesson on Phylloxera. Thanks heaps.
David said…
Well I agree with Philip White’s article "2009/07/phylloxera-cops-ripping-up-rulebook" how you can have the same people making the protocols and then the same people evaluating those protocols in relation to their ability to protect Sth Aust borders from Phylloxera infestation, it’s completely wrong. I read the leader article and Trevor & Wayne’s concern seemed to be on taking whole grapes from newly declared regions into SA. I always listen to the wine segment on the local radio station and heard them when they were interviewed by Reid Bosward and Kym Jenke about the article. I must admit I got a little lost with all the technical jargon so I decided to investigate further, as a small grape grower in the Barossa I stand to lose my whole farm if Phylloxera comes to the Barossa, and I am concerned about what is being said as we have some very Old Vines on it. I found a great web site ""were all sorts of Phylloxera related protocols exist. Of particular interest was a paper titled “Pest Risk Analysis for the establishment of a new infestation of Phylloxera in Australia as a result of harvest processes”. This paper lists whole grape harvesting & transport as the greatest risk of spreading Phylloxera, greater than machinery, must, vehicles & tourists. It seems that Phylloxera crawlers migrate to the canopy between December – March during harvest time and if mechanical harvesting is carried out a large number of these crawlers end up in the grape bins. The risk analysis puts the crawlers at an extremely high likely hood of travelling into other regions and being able to escape and multiply into new vineyards. This is a pretty scary thought for all SA Old Vines. Now it would seem that what the Leader article was talking about is, not the fact that the Phylloxera & Grape Industry Board of SA (PGIBSA) now has more teeth due to the new plant health act or the comment by the Chairman of the PGIBSA in the leader about new protection for SA as importers have to be registered etc., they were talking about the existing legal protocols not being adequate for whole grape movement into SA. At the recent Phylloxera meetings held around the state by the PGIBSA, Dr. Kevin Powell Australia’s head researcher into Phylloxera said that the Phylloxera outbreak in the Fosters Vineyard in the Yarra Valley occurred in 2001 and was only visible in 2006 a total of 5 years from infestation to detection. So tell me this how come the protocols I have been reading give full PEZ status to a region only after 3 years yet the top researcher in Australia is going around saying an absolute minimum of 5 years?. This doesn’t give me much confidence for the survival of my Old Vines. Clearly Phylloxera crawlers are potentially going to be present long before the vines actually start to show evidence of vine decline, and then what if the vineyard is planted on Phylloxera tolerant rootstock? Does this mean that no one will ever know that Phylloxera is present until all of Australia has been infested? There is a clear need to investigate all of this further, but who do you go to the PGIBSA, the committee that are actually making the rules and whose members have the most to gain?? What a mess!
Anonymous said…
Here we go again, when are we going to get bureaucrats who make these changes to realise they are potentially putting an end to the Wine Industry in South Australia as we know it.

PIRSA are unable to enforce the Plant Health act and simply make changes to make it easier for them to administer. A good example of this is when the act started in 2009 PIRSA was to monitor imports of grapes products into SA by transport manifests, this was dropped as it took too much time as there were too many manifests. SO WHO IS CHECKING WHAT COMES INTO STH AUST?????

I have given up the fight as the politics of all this is overbearing and it seems impossible to get anyone to listen to reason.

Good luck

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