Although today phylloxera is a problem that rarely causes inconveniences in the field when it comes to growing grapes, the truth is that there was a time when this invisible plague was about to end wine production in Spain and Europe.
We all know the meaning of the vine when it comes to obtaining the best white, red or rosé wine. That grape defines the character, taste or smell of the wine, in an approach in which little can be done by aging or blending grapes if the base product is not of the right quality or the right varieties. For this reason, taking care of the grape is the basis for obtaining a quality wine.
Precisely for this reason it is so important to pamper the plant in all aspects. Something that covers irrigation, pruning, inserts and also the protection of the vine against diseases and pests. A threat, this last one, that was about to end the entire European wine tradition due to a very dangerous invader: the phylloxera of the vine.
what is phylloxera
Phylloxera, or Phylloxera Vastatrix, is a homopterous hemiptera insect, which we can more commonly call an aphid. This pest invades vines in a cycle that completely affects the plant and completely destroys it, especially considering the way it proliferates. A process in which it makes no distinction, since it attacks the vines intended to produce white or red wine indistinctly. So its influence is very serious when it comes to a context where the vine and its meaning are key to obtaining a result that is adequate to what is expected when it comes to getting a good wine.
On the one hand, the aphid is dedicated to feeding on the nutrients present in the roots of the plant, once it is infected, where the development of the females takes place. Once the females reach adulthood, they lay their eggs on the leaves of the plant, presenting them with a series of very identifiable lumps and where the future offspring are housed. Throughout this process, the aphid feeds on the plant, also causing a notable increase in the presence of fungi and other parasites on it, which ultimately leads to the irremediable death of the vine.
As if that were not enough, phylloxera also has a winged modality, which despite not being very common in its development, does have the drawback that it allows the plague to spread even further than the aphid would be able to do it moving on the ground. A problem that is combined with the ability of the aphid to adequately overcome the winter, recovering its activity with the arrival of spring, thanks to the particular structure of the eggs that the aphid inserts into the leaves.
The arrival of phylloxera in Spain
To find the origin of phylloxera in Spain, we have to travel to the past, to the year 1878. It was at that time that a series of insects began to be perceived that affected the vineyards and had little to do with pests. of the vine that until then were known. And the fact is that the potential of this species to infect European vineyards was considerable.
This vine disease was unknown neither in Spain nor in Europe, since it was not native to the area, but rather came through the importation of seedlings and shoots of American vines. These plants included this insect, which would not take long to spread to European vines, whose characteristics were ideal for the proliferation of phylloxera.
The magnitude of the problem was so considerable that many wine-growing areas were on the verge of disappearing, also losing a large number of native varieties both in Spain and in Europe. This problem would take a long time to be completely eradicated from the country, so that some regions maintained problems with the plague until 1920, almost forty years after the first cases appeared.
Finally, as happened with the problem, the solution would also come from across the pond. After many discussions on how to solve the problem in each affected wine area, finally the majority would opt to bring new American seedlings, more resistant to the insect, which combined with the knowledge on how to graft a vine will allow creating a sort of mix between American and traditional vines.. An idea that helped save the local varieties that were able to survive this attack and that at the same time served to obtain new reinforced versions against this fearsome attack.
Today, the fearsome phylloxera is no longer a threat to Spanish wines thanks to different measures taken in this regard. One of the main ones is the prohibition by the state of the importation of any type of foreign vine, except for research purposes. Therefore, the indiscriminate importation of vines that once caused the arrival of this plague would not be possible today.
Another measure that is still used today is to use the base plant of the American vine, which, unlike the European-type base, does have the necessary resistance to adequately withstand the effect of phylloxera on the roots. In fact, today the grafting technique of European-style plants is still used on those bases that came from America.
This would leave the leaves of European-style plants open to this fearsome pest. Fortunately, there are also specific treatments with which to prevent the development of the eggs that the female aphids could insert into the leaves. Since they are quite striking, it is not difficult to identify the infected plant, with winter/spring treatments available. These are responsible for eliminating these eggs and prevent the proliferation of the plague. An approach that has turned phylloxera into a bad memory of the past.