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Chez Thierry, Nassau, Bahamas

7th article

by Thierry Boeuf in The Tribune (April 10, 2001)


Grape-ling with the parasites


In my last column I revealed that most of the European vineyards were destroyed between 1850 and 1900. At the time, the first American vineyards had already been planted, mainly with European grape varieties, and some people traveled between the two continents with grapevine samples that were contaminated. That caused, what I think was the first big epidemics concerning the plants across the Atlantic Ocean and after this, grape growing changed forever.

Prior to these events, vineyard management principles had probably remained the same for 4000 years. In several regions, men domesticated different types of grapevine, adapting them from their original environment. Indeed some vines are currently grown in very hot and humid environment, while others are living in dry and freezing deserts.

As a student in Montpellier, I remember that I was supposed to learn all these plants. Our Professor taught us how to recognize the leaves of all kind of strange plants, strange meaning only that they were very different from the grapevines we were used to observing in the vineyards surrounding the city. Most of these vines were not used to produce grapes, but there are some exceptions and, here at Butler and Sands in the Bahamas we have a wine called Manischewitz Concord, which is made from the Concord grape of the Vitis Lambrusca, an American specie originally from the North Eastern US.

The most frequently grown grapevine specie is Vitis vinifera, meaning in Latin vine for wine, now grown across the world, this specie is thought to have first become domesticated in the Middle East, but wild plants of the same specie were also present in the European. Since then the Egyptian, Greeks and other European have always grown grapevines.

Our predecessors have selected the best vines from their vineyards and they have become, like all other domesticated plants or animals, very different from their wild ancestors. Nevertheless, the wild vines were still crossed with the grown ones because some of the former were growing in the forest bordering vineyards. That is how all the modern varieties were created.

Many of them come from France, where the Greeks created the first vineyards 2000 years ago with grapevines they brought from their different colonies. We can imagine that the first varieties were likely to have been close to the then Greek types such as the Muscat family, but none of them can have stayed identical to what they originally were. With the help from bees and other insects, the grapevines, that were planted in each region have had their flowers pollinated by wild vines, and with this assistance, became more adapted to its climate.

But when mildew, oidium and Phylloxera arrived in Europe from America in the 1850s, they killed everything, including the wild forest vines. The only locations spared by the worst of theses destructors, meaning Phylloxera, were some sandy vineyards in the Languedoc and some other, which are flooded every winter. From that, scientists discovered that the parasite killing the vines roots could not stand either water or sand.

Consequently, a number of vineyards were established on the seaside, while others were based in places it was possible to flood the vineyard in winter, such as the Beziers region in Languedoc or Arles in Camargue. This coincided also with the construction of the railways network, enabling these southern regions to send their wines to Paris and the North. The souths economy changed dramatically through this, with some families becoming wealthy in quite quickly and when you visit these regions, you will see a number of chateaux, almost all built around 1900.

However, vineyards flooding and the plantation of the coast could not replace the millions of acres that had died within 20-30 years. The Montpellier school of viticulture of was thus created with its research department charge with finding a way to stop the destruction.

They first found where the parasite originated from and came to the conclusion that it had to be confronted with its home territory. That is why French scientists went to America in 1870, where they found wild grapevines living alongside with the Phylloxera without any problem. This resulted in the plantation of American vines in Europe, after which several methods for combating the parasite were explored. One theory was crossing American grapevines with Vitis vinifera to produce hybrids, which have were planted in large quantities during the first half of the 20th century. They produced large quantities of grapes and they resisted almost all parasites and diseases.

However, these techniques have been consigned to the past. They are almost all forbidden now because it was later discovered that a number of wines from these hybrids were contained not only ethanol which the normal alcohol, but also methanol, which has several unhealthy implications and destroys neurons.

Even the hybrids without this kind of problem were discarded because the wines were of a lesser quality than those from European grapes. Only one hybrid grapevine is still legally accepted in France - only for the Armagnac, which is a brandy and is distillated like the Cognac.

When they created hybrids, the scientists experimented with the grafting of European grapevines on American roots, which led to the development of modern viticulture. Today, almost all vineyards in the world utilize grapevines that have roots with American origins and stems from European origins. The problem with the grafting is that it means that most vineyards now have the same clones of grapevines, meaning plants have exactly the same genes. This evolution happened in most agricultural productions after selection of the biggest producing parents, but it means we have much less diversity than in the past.