Gourmet Fair

The Plague of Phylloxera: When Cognac Was Culled

The wine harvest in Burgundy. ©Musée de la Vie Bourguignonne. Courtesy Distillateurs Culturels. Handout via The Gourmet Gazette

Cognac, France —They are pale yellow and nearly microscopic, they are insidious, they violently attack roots, leaves and suck sap, notably the sap of commercial grape vines, until they are dry and dead. Then they move on to their next victims. They nearly left us in a world without wine. They are insect pests, originally described as Phylloxera vastatrix in France when they arrived there in the latter half of the 19th century. Today the insect is more commonly called grape phylloxera, still with us by the way. But the ability of human beings to work together, resilience in the face of trauma and hard working scientists, horticulturists, farmers, wine makers and distillers and government officials, saved the world from phylloxera that raged all over the planet.

Old growth French vine plant. Courtesy Distillateurs Culturels. Handout via The Gourmet Gazette

It was a traumatic period for winemakers and vineyards the world over provoked by the tiny insect, indigenous to the United States which spread throughout the world on board trading ships and in American vine plants that were being imported to be planted in Europe in the 19th century. American vine plants were more resistant to it, but not those of the rest of the world. One of the regions in France to be hit was Cognac known for its fine brandies exported throughout the world. It is also, unfortunately close to the great port city of Bordeaux by which it is believed the phylloxera specimens arrived.

The Grape Harvest in Romagne. Baron Henri Charles Antoine detailed close-up. ©Musée Bernard d’Agesci Niort Courtesy Distillateurs Culturels. Handout via The Gourmet Gazette

An exhibition is being held in two museums in the picturesque small city of Cognac, where many of the leading cognac-producing houses are located. Entitled Phylloxera, a Human and Scientific Saga, it tells the sad yet happy ending tale of phylloxera in France, the world and especially the region where it hit circa 1875 when cognac-making was at a highly affluent peak, wiping out livelihoods and most of the vineyard. The exhibition takes a look at the history of wine producing in France and the region from the end of the 19th century to the start of World War I. A period when phylloxera undertook its devastating devastation, not only in Cognac but in all of France and throughout the world.

Grape vine leaf infested with phylloxera. Photo ©Maison Rémy Martin. Courtesy Distillateurs Culturels. Handout via The Gourmet Gazette

The exhibition which features documents, art works, objects and cognac making tools, showcases the collective resilience of the wine-making community to confront the destruction of the vineyards and to find a solution. And the solution would come from America, where the insect came from through American vine plants that were first introduced into southeastern France. After several methods were tried but did not ring true— notably inundating the vineyards or injecting sulphur into the soil —it was decided to uproot the vine plants and replace them with French plants grafted onto American root stock which was more resistant to the greedy ravages of the insect. It was at this point that the vineyards in France were planted in rows that are familiar to us today instead of being dispersed throughout the cultivated soil. The epidemic also structured winemaking giving rise, for instance, to one of the most valuable advances in French wine making: the creation and introduction of the system of Appellations d’Origines Contrôlées labels which strictly define how and where a wine is produced.

Treating the vineyard with sulphur. This did not work. Credit: Extracts from the Conférence sur le Phylloxera”, par J-A Barral, 1882. ©Bibliothèque municipale de Cognac. Courtesy Distillateurs Culturels. Handout via The Gourmet Gazette

The exhibition begins in the MAH (Musée d’art et d’histoire-the Museum of Art and History) and continues after a scenic walk through the town at the Musée des savoir-faire du cognac (the Museum of Cognac Savoir Faire) on the banks of the impeccable Charente River which also gives its name to the region. The two museums worked in concert with a number of other museums throughout France as well as with some of the cognac-producing houses allowing for the wealth and pertinence of the objects, documents and works of art on display.

Grape phylloxera in various stages of their complex development. They will ultimately develop a winged form. Credit: Extracts from the Conférence sur le Phylloxera”, par J-A Barral, 1882. ©Bibliothèque municipale de Cognac. Courtesy Distillateurs Culturels. Handout via The Gourmet Gazette

The journey begins with an overview of the flourishing French wine industry during the latter half of the 19th century during the Second Empire which serves to underscore how dramatic the arrival of phylloxera to France was. The portion of the exhibition in the MAH winds up with the arrival of the pest in France, first identified in the Gard region in southwestern France in 1863. As the exhibition continues at the Musée des savoir-faire du cognac the solutions to phylloxera are explored along with the considerable efforts made in the region and the country at the time. It also explores how the phylloxera crisis gave rise to modern wine making.

A Wine Growing mission to America by Pierre Viala, 1889. ©Bibliothèque municipale de Cognac. Courtesy Distillateurs Culturels. Handout via The Gourmet Gazette

Franco-American cooperation was key to the success of the operation of saving the vineyard with both French and American scientists working together. Ultimately it would be through internationally-renowned plant breeder, horticulturist, grape collector and inventor, Thomas Volney Munson who was based in Denison, Texas and French professor, Pierre Viala, viticulturist at Montpellier University who was sent to the United States by France in 1887 that a solution emerged. Volney Munson’s grape-hunting experience helped direct Viala to American vines that were phylloxera resistant and which could thrive in chalky soils. Viala found what he was looking for in the Hill Country in Texas. Viala would go on to recommend three Texas species. And the French would ultimately develop new rootstocks by cross-pollinating the phylloxera resistant American grapes with European ones. Munson would go on to be awarded the great French honor of Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole. And in 1989, the Texas legislature named Denison, Texas as the Wine Root Stock capital of the World.

A copper scalder used in the distilling process, circa 1900 used in the region of Nantes. ©Musée du Vignoble Nantais. Courtesy Distillateurs Culturels. Handout via The Gourmet Gazette

There are plenty of things to visit and to do in and around Cognac and there is a link to the tourism office after the practical information on the exhibition. Both of the museums involved in the phylloxera exhibition house impressive permanent collections as well. And do stop in for a tasting of what was almost once lost in one of the many cognac-producing houses located right in Cognac or nearby Jarnac. Guided tours of the exhibition in English are available on request.
©Trish Valicenti for The Gourmet Gazette
Phylloxera exhibition until December 31st
Musée d’art et d’histoire / MAH
48 boulevard Denfert-Rochereau 16100 Cognac05 45 32 07 25
Musée des savoir-faire du cognac
Place de la salle verte 16100 Cognac05 45 36 03 65

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