Philoxera: The invisible plague
"From hunger, war and plague, deliver us Lord!" - Litany of the century. XIV.
The outbreaks of plagues and epidemics began to plague the various civilizations at an early age, but there were essentially two phenomena that most felt their effects: intercivilizational contact and, later, globalization. The conflicts between Genoa and Constantinople brought the Black Death to Europe; already in the century. XVI the contacts between Europeans and Amerindians contributed to the destruction of pre-Columbian civilizations through the spread of smallpox, measles and other European diseases. Also the most cosmopolitan European cities such as Lisbon, Paris, London and Seville, more conducive to the movement of individuals from all over the globe, were frequently plagued by outbreaks of plague. Natural pests also plagued geographic areas whose economy depended mainly on agriculture, and it is exactly one of these pests that will focus our focus from now on: phylloxera.
A plague in full swing
Since the end of the 18th century, England has experienced a set of economic and social phenomena that would become known as the Industrial Revolution. Among other innovations, James Watt's steam engine has established itself as the symbol of technological vanguardism and industrial supremacy of a nation that was asserting itself as the leader of an empire on a global scale. In addition to the use of the Watt engine in the textile factories of Yorkshire, the steam engine has also become widespread in other types of applications, namely in the means of transport. Here it is important to mention its application on railway locomotives and also on transatlantic ships: thanks to industrialization, distances were beginning to shorten, and contact between the New World and the Old Continent would gain a new dynamic. Many researchers point to this shortening of the distances as one of the factors for the entry and spread of phylloxera in Europe, with the entry of American vines and ornamental plants, and with them of some parasites that, surviving the trip, would soon damage the flora from the Old Continent. The phylloxera, native to North America, was first identified and named in 1854, in Florida. It would not be long before it reached European soil - the first news of the plague in Europe happened in 1863, in France. Soon the main European wine regions would be attacked by this parasite and in 1865 it was identified for the first time in the Alto Douro. Here, whether due to the microclimate, the orography, the terraced system and the socioeconomic characteristics of a population that is too dependent on monoculture, the parasite has found exceptional conditions to develop and install chaos and ruin. Although the numbers vary according to the sources, it is generally accepted to say that two thirds of the properties were affected by the pest.
An imported solution
The first attempts to combat the insect did not take long, although it was self-taught and without any criteria. Many chose to use a series of chemical compounds and pesticides that, in addition to being ineffective, still destroyed many of the unattended vines. Another less dangerous but equally inefficient attempt was to use animals such as frogs or chickens to eat the insects. Another method adopted, not to combat, but to minimize damage, was the random planting of different grape varieties, since the pest attacked certain grape varieties more strongly than others, which at least allowed it to maintain certain productive minimums, even if very vary according to harvests. This last practice, according to the researchers, is at the origin of the current field blend, so traditional in the region.
If France was the first country to be hit by the plague, the truth is that it was also at the forefront of research to face it. Charles Valentine Riley confirmed the theory that American rootstocks were immune to the pest. This theory, known as the Americanist ”, spread throughout Europe, and was adopted by the Portuguese government, which imposed it on national producers. Interestingly, all the major Port wine houses, be they Portuguese or British, claim for themselves the credits of resolving the crisis, through trips to London where they will have learned the methods of combating phylloxera, which in itself is a fallacy .
Consequences and a novelty upstream.
Some of the general consequences of the phylloxera crisis have already been mentioned here. The abandonment of certain cultivation areas, the installation of English families in the Douro, the affirmation of large producers in relation to small ones, the use of American rootstocks or the random planting of grape varieties have already been the target of our analysis, but there is more. The construction of terraces with higher levels and with more space between the strains, in order to more effectively combat new pests (post-phylloxera vines) are also a hallmark of modern planting methods. But perhaps the biggest consequence was the inclusion of the Douro Superior to the demarcated Douro region. In fact, this sub-region, which extends between Valeira and Douro Internacional, already produced wines of great quality long before being included in the General Company, but the fact that it was practically immune to the pest was the key factor for its definitive inclusion. But we will talk about the Douro Superior in a next opportunity …