Phylloxera, I Can Feel it in My Bones

The grape vines that are native to North America are a different species (Vitis labrusca) than the grape vines of Europe, Vitis Vinifera. In the 1870’s the grape vines of Europe were attacked by a grape louse called phylloxera. It nearly wiped out all European vines. Many Bordeaux wine makers went south to Rioja Spain where phylloxera had not yet spread, to restart their vineyards. Consequently, even today, many Rioja wines are made with a Bordeaux influence. They are made from different grapes. Rioja is made primarily from the Tempranillo grape. Bordeaux is primarily made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, heavier with Cabernet Sauvignon on the left bank of the Gironde River, heavier with Merlot on the right bank.

In reaction to the phylloxera epidemic, European wine makers, noting that the North American species, Vitis labrusca was resistant to the grape louse, began creating grafted vines from the two species for the superior flavor of the viniferous, and the heartiness of the labrusca. Thus, the wines made in Europe after the 1870’s must be quite different from the wines made in centuries prior to that.

In 1451, the first vines were planted in Chile. In 1455, Chile produced its first wine. In the mid 1800’s, Chilean winemakers started bringing over the European vines ,Vitis Vinifera before the phylloxera epidemic hit. To this day, Chile has not suffered from the grape louse. They are still making wines from the Vitis Vinifera species.

I don‘t think my grandmother ever had a Chilean wine. She had osteoporosis as does my mother. I have been lifting weights for over 20 years for a variety of reasons, one of them being to shore up my defenses against the ravages of osteoporosis. Last year I had my bone density checked. Much to my great frustration, I have the dreaded disease. It shouldn’t have surprised me. I have very thin bones like my mother and grandmother. In this round of nature vs. nurture, nature won out.

In his book, Windows on the World, Kevin Zraly makes the argument that as disastrous as the phylloxera epidemic was to most European wineries in the 19th century, the end result was a great improvement to the industry. The work the wine makers had to do to create a hybrid pushed them to improve winemaking in many other ways. According to Zraly, this epidemic brought winemaking to a maturity it may otherwise not have reached.

When I look at my hands I see my grandmother’s hands, the thin wrist, the narrow shape of the hand, and the long fingers. Underneath the skin are thinning bones that will soon start to develop holes, like my grandmother’s. Seeing her hands reminds me of the warmth of childhood, sitting beside Nanny, hearing her read to me. Because I carry her genes which are expressed in me, I can see her in myself, I can feel her in my bones. My Osteoporosis is like viniferous pylloxera. It’s devastating, yet, it’s a physical reminder of and connection to my mother and grandmother. Thinking of them, feeling them in my bones may make me a more mature person.

I would like to compare a present day left bank Bordeaux to a Rioja and to a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. Because the Chilean Cabs are made from the Vitis Vinifera rather than the hybrid from which contemporary Bordeaux is made, I’m thinking the Chilean wine may be more like the Bordeaux that Thomas Jefferson had the first time he went to France. “Wine brightens the life and thinking of anyone.” Bordeaux is the wine that made Thomas Jefferson fall in love with wine. I would love to taste what he tasted.

The grape, the wine gives us a common thread. We may not be able to sit down and have a glass of wine with Thomas Jefferson, but we can sit down and sip a wine like the wine he sipped perhaps in his most reflective moments. It takes us to places in the world where people have gone for centuries, for the wine. This is one of the most intriguing things about wine; it gives us a connection to a greater history. In this same way our genes, our qualities and our flaws give us a connection to our own personal family history.


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