Wine is very old, but wine as we know it – with temperature-controlled fermentation, machine-harvesting, Brix-measurement, cultured yeasts, glass bottles, consumer choice – is not. We know this, but we still claim a connection to wine’s true lineage through its historical vineyards, some of which go back centuries. There are plots in Alsace, Tuscany, Barossa, and the Rheingau that have produced wines for as many as 1,100 years. That dirt, that climate, those hills, those people, for more than a millennium. To say nothing of winemaking itself, which is more than 9,000 years old.

Wine romanticists adore the long history of wine, but a catastrophic event that happened roughly 150 years ago ruptured that narrative. This was the phylloxera epidemic of the mid-19th century, which razed European and then non-European viticulture so thoroughly that almost no extant vineyards were spared. Almost – but more on that in a bit.

Phylloxera (“fih-LOX-eruh”) is a louse that loves vines so much it developed separate forms to take up residence in both roots and leaves. From there, the aphids create harmful galls that attack the roots and suck the life out of the plants, ultimately killing the entire system. When phylloxera first struck hard in the 1860s, vines died and European wine supplies plummeted, but that makes it sound like a few lords and ladies had to raid their stashes of vintage port.

It was far worse than that. Phylloxera turned out to be not only deadly, but all too easily transportable. It spread quickly and overwhelmingly to vineyards from the Mosel to the Aegean, from the Republic of Georgia to the United States of America, from Switzerland to New Zealand. The effects on the world’s economy and social fabric, and the thousands of individual human beings who ran that economy and wove that fabric, were enormous.

“In the history of agriculture,” writes Dr. Richard Smart in “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” “(phylloxera) rivals the potato blight of Ireland as a plant disease with widespread social effects.”


Also widespread were the effects on the scientific community, which was called into service by the government of France and other nations in order to solve the nightmarish viticide. Gradually a consensus emerged on how to combat phylloxera, and almost as gradually a solution was implemented that brought vine growing and winemaking into the modern era.

Ironically, as the research ultimately showed, it was the modern era that allowed phylloxera to do its damage in the first place. Humans moving and trading transferred the lice from plants in one more or less contained area to many uncontrolled ones. It was our favorite modern culprit, globalization, that empowered phylloxera.

Moreover, it was globalization’s poster child, America, who was originally responsible. Phylloxera is native to the east coast of the United States. The vine species that grew up here successfully then – Vitis rupestris, Vitis riparia, and others – developed innate resistance to the pest. But by the mid-19th century, plants including rooted grapevines were a significant import/export item. Fifty tons of American vines were imported into France in 1875. Even as early as the late 1850s, substantial numbers of young rooted American vines were being exported to France, Germany, Portugal and the British Isles.

The native vine species of the European countries, Vitis vinifera, produces the best grapes for wine, but it had never encountered phylloxera and therefore never bothered to develop a resistance. Vitis vinifera was powerless against the onslaught of the lice, which clung to their American hosts for the trans-Atlantic journey and disembarked into their own New World. Intra-European transport took place via soil sticking to roots, irrigation water, soil on shoes and machinery, wind – most of the ways that the world’s creatures get around the planet.

The losses, first reported in the Rhône, grew consistently though gradually. Almost 10 years separated the first reports of infected vines in Bordeaux from the last. Discussion among growers was undoubtedly incessant, and just as indubitably marked by a combination of concerned hypotheses and uninformed gossip. News reports followed, but years passed before the situation was considered serious enough to focus sufficient governmental and scientific resources.


It was serious. In France, total wine production was reduced by the mid-1880s to a quarter of what it had been a decade earlier. That’s at a time when France’s wines occupied a far greater share of the overall export market than they do today.

The solution, when it came, seems obvious in hindsight. The vineyards of Europe would be replanted with phylloxera-resistant American rootstock, to which the preferred indigenous varietals of any given area would be grafted. This was not an easy decision to arrive at, as winemakers feared that grafting would render inferior wines, or at the very least foreign ones.

Those discussions, in Europe and elsewhere, continue to this day, but one thing is certain: The widespread implementation of grafting brought an increase in virus diseases, which infected the cuttings brought to Europe for the replanting efforts. Undetectable until the 1950s in roots, these diseases spread to the fruit of the grafted vines.

What effects, if any, did all of this have on the wines we drink today? Ultimately, we can’t know for certain. There are effects of quality, however any individual defines it, and also effects of character, embedded in an additional question: What effect has American rootstock in European soil had on the ability of a European wine to reflect European place? Perhaps pre-phylloxera 1843 wine in Graves or the Saar or the Dão or Sicily tasted categorically distinct from analogous wines in 1903. Maybe they were worse!


There do happen to be vineyards throughout the world today with old, ungrafted vines. There is a far smaller number of vineyards with something even more special: truly pre-phylloxera rootstock in areas which, somewhat mysteriously, were spared the louse’s infestation altogether. We know that phylloxera does not do well in sandy soils, but that alone does not explain why all the phylloxera-free zones exist. A combination of isolation, climate and luck is responsible.

As far as I know, two such wines are currently available in Maine. They are worlds apart in external temperament – one is an outrageously racy, mineral white wine from a 1,200-meter-high vineyard in the Italian Alps, minutes from the summit of Mont Blanc; the other is a brooding, dense, bold red from the desertlike sandy soils of Spain’s Jumilla – but they call to one another in a shared language of rugged confidence, three-dimensional fullness and battle-tested depth. They are true natives, rooted – literally and figuratively – in something too old for us to know.

The Ermes Pavese Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle 2013 ($29) is made from the prié blanc grape native to the Valle d’Aosta, a French-leaning district in Italy’s extreme northwest. Phylloxera never made it this high and barren. If it had, you get the sense this wine would have slapped it away easily.

It is intensely mineral, a massive blast of stone and salt and high tangerine acidity, salty and lip-smacking, grand. For all its power, there’s a lovely plush roundness to it too, with silky tannins that render an impression of red-wine-ness in the midst of a Platonically dry, structured white wine.

The Olivares Altos de la Hoya 2013 ($12) is, for all of its outsized ripe spiciness, the humbler of the two wines. The vineyard lies 800 meters above sea level in Jumilla, where the sun’s heat blasts old vines during the day but gains no purchase in the chalk-sand soil for radiation during the night. This hot-cold temperature fluctuation yields amazing balance for such a bold, almost fierce red wine.

The grape is monastrell, known elsewhere as mourvèdre but known everywhere for its black, almost charred tones and rambunctious character. The wine undergoes dramatic changes over several days, every stage a winner. It feels like a living thing, this wine, the muscles working with the bones and the flesh. The aromas are heavenly, introducing flavors of cayenne, dark coffee, black raspberry. The mood is warm, analog, almost fuzzy, like a T. Rex song on vinyl.

Both wines are recognizable but uncommon, and they tell survivor stories.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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