Wine Week, Part 3/3: “Phylloxera, the Great Destroyer of Vines”

Several species of grapes make the wines we know and love today. Of these, vitis vinifera from Europe stands as perhaps the best known.

However, others originating from the United States also play a big part in the history of wine: vitis labrusca and vitis riparia, to name but two examples, tagged collectively as both destroyers and saviors.

Huh?!

Lemme back up a second with this question: you know how customs always asks passengers on international flights about if they’re bringing back seeds, fruit, or plant samples?

While there are several reasons for those seemingly silly inquiries, tonight’s example highlights some of the inherent fears behind such questions:

The Old World (a.k.a. Europe) set the standard for wine quality for centuries. People Stateside eventually wanted to build their own wine industry once they had established themselves as a nation (since overseas tariffs forced prices sky-high, who knew? /sarcasm), but they found that local grapes produced entirely different and, to many, offensive or lackluster wines.

And so there was trade. And it was… well, innocuous at first. Vitis vinifera had moved into the western hemisphere for since the seventeenth centruy, give or take a few decades, in certain areas. But it wasn’t until the 1850s and 1860s that Europeans decided to run some experiments of their own on American grapevines.

Enter phylloxera, a nearly invisible bug that labrusca and other native varieties had, over time, had become immune to… which were then carried on those exported vines to French vineyards, with vinifera species that had never before encountered it.

Think of how the Spanish conquistadors exposed the indigenous peoples of the Americas to smallpox and a host of other epidemiological horrors.

Now apply that same principle to grapevines.

Yeah.

Disaster.

Disaster on such a level that European vinifera varietals were nearly wiped out by these tiny bugs, for once infected, the vines could not be saved. Even today, phylloxera can only be managed and not eradicated if an infestation is discovered within a vineyard.

The collapse of an industry — and multiple international economies — gained speed as the pests rampaged through vineyards worldwide, even hitting Australia and South Africa, eradicating nearly all of the most ancient vines in history.

Nearly all.

Some old vines, pre-phylloxera old, still exist, and those areas (such as Chile) guard their grapevines with steadfast militancy. Who can blame them, knowing the cost if one small, wayward louse were inadvertently introduced?

*Not* an actual picture of phylloxera. But they are super tiny, seemingly harmless until you start to see the damage they rapidly spread. Images and info can be found here.

It took years to find a solution to the initial phylloxera epidemic, and longer to determine that the very thing that saved European vines had caused the problem in the first place: American rootstock.

Essentially, as prevention against the pest, vineyards plant the roots of labrusca or other native American varieties into the soil, and then graft the desired vinifera species onto that rootstock. Because phylloxera begins infestation via the roots, and the American species have innate resistance, the vinifera then has protection and freedom to flower and fruit.

Of course, species adapt and shift through environmental changes, and so the danger of phylloxera with grapes today still hangs over the metaphorical head of any winery or estate.

In fact, because the USA wanted to focus on growing vinifera in their own budding economy, it didn’t take long for the bugs to devour those vines, too, not even a decade after the initial European rampage.

And it wasn’t the last time it bugged us, either (ha!); as an article in the Chicago Tribune penned by Michael Austin describes it, 1983 marked another major outbreak in California, Oregon amd Washington from “a new strain of phylloxera, biotype b” (2017).

What was it Ian Malcolm famously noted to John Hammond in Jurassic Park?

Yeah, that. #truth

Scientists continue to fight against phylloxera, but only time will tell us whether we can do so fast enough to counter new strains.


Wine Challenge, Week 18: Two South African Pinotage Examples

Because sometimes it’s great to compare two examples of a grape side by side, if only to see how climate, regional differences and winemaking shape the final product, I’m exploring two Pinotage wines for you tonight.

Pinotage, a genetic cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, had some rough beginnings, and to this day stands as a battleground grape for growers and wine drinkers alike. Perhaps it doesn’t help to have one parent — Pinot Noir — regarded as a world renowned “diva grape.”

Main complaints against Pinotage include “off” smells like banana, band aid, or acetone. However, Master of Wine Tim Atkin notes in an interview with Decanter that Pinotage vineyards which have older vines tend to make better wines, which many additional sommeliers and wine experts argue raise the quality of any grape (though the jury’s still out on that, science-wise).

Another issue rose from high yields of Pinotage in its early days; because you potentially could harvest a massive crop each year, producers focused more on quantity rather than quality to generate profits. Thankfully, this trend has shifted towards lower yields but higher care in the winemaking in order to really help this dark, oft-savory grape shine.

While still often fruit-forward, you can get meaty and herbacous flavors from Pinotage as well, a far cry from either of its parents. Resources also note that greater age on these wines can help temper those potential off-odors that I mentioned before, so I’ll be curious to see how these examples hold up under scrutiny.

For the sale of expediency, as I’m tasting two wines this evening, my notes won’t be quite as detailed as usual.


Wine A: Robertson Winery Pinotage (Breede River, Western Cape), 2018

A clear, medium ruby, the Robertson has a medium intensity set of aromas that include red cherry, red plum, banana, and leather. Flavors closely follow with both a medium intensity and the aforementioned descriptors, with a bit of savory soy sauce, woodiness and forest floor in addition. It’s mostly fruit-forward.

This still developing, dry wine has medium low acidity, medium levels of alcohol and medium, firm but fine tannins. Its finish is medium, but it boasts a full body on the palate.

Based on present, but narrow complexity (some evidence of limited oak maturation and bottle age), medium intensity of aromas/flavors, medium finish and moderate balance, I would give this wine a rating of “good.” Definitely drink now; I wouldn’t age it because of its lack of supporting structures such as intensity and acidity.

Food pairings for the Robertson could include light Italian fare with red or meat sauces, or with barbecue. It’s a relatively light wine and easy to drink, so you could feasibly use it instead of a Pinot Noir if you like a more savory profile as opposed to a purely fruit-forward option.


Wine B: Barista Pinotage (Western Cape), 2020

Like Wine A, the Barista also has a clear color of medium ruby, but with a tinge of purple around the rim.

Whoa. Is this the same grape? There’s so much more going on with the aromas — coffee wafts up first, with banana and plum again close on its heels, grounded by cocoa, vanilla, cherry, and smoke. Overall pronounced intensity, because I could smell it — with “it” referring to a few very discrete, distinct aromas — as soon as I began pouring into my glass.

After a sip, I notice that this complex wine is dry and has low acidity. Tannins are softer than in Wine A, and at medium levels. Alcohol is slightly less than in Wine A (but still medium), with a medium-plus body.

Flavors aren’t as fruit-forward, and they stand at medium-plus intensity. However, I still taste cherry, cocoa, leather, vanilla, coffee, smoke and fresh plum. Finish is medium, fading gently into tannin dryness.

Greater complexity and aroma/flavor intensity places this wine above the Robertson in quality, as does a closer, more tamed balance of elements. Because of these factors, I rate the Barista at “very good.” You can drink it now, and you could also hold onto it for 2-3 years maximum before opening it; I hesitate to suggest that it would last any longer, despite its relative youth, because of its lower acidity.

I feel like this wine could stand up to a greater range of foods; the Barista website suggests pork and duck as pairings, and I’m inclined to agree. Further, I’d add fig sauce to the idea of pork, or even meat served in a Korean barbecue style. Heck, I’d try it even with a hearty bibimbap in that Korean vein, or with Japanese tonkatsu on rice with seaweed salad.


Final Notes and Comparison

Same relative region, same grape, though different vintage years. In future comparisons like this one, I’d like to try getting at least the same year, if not a bit closer proximity within a winegrowing area.

I’d be curious to see what deviating paths the winemakers took to create each product; I was able to locate a tech sheet for the Robertson online, but not one for the Barista, unfortunately.

Pinotage, it seems, has more range than some might credit. While I detected a banana aroma in both, it wasn’t necessarily unpleasant. Surprising, yes, much as a wine neophyte might not expect bubblegum aromas in wine (lookin’ at you, Beaujolais, but with love). The Barista in particular held my attention due to its wide range on both nose and palate, while drinking smoothly and easily with a soft, easy finish.

This experiment has left me curious to try more Pinotage, because I do wonder how one from an even older vintage, or one from professed “old vines,” might taste.


And that concludes the “Wine Week” series!

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Published by Allie

Foodie explorer with Stardew Valley dreams. Lover of wine but not beer, cheese but not milk, and all things chocolate. Working to learn as many self-sufficient, at-home food production skills as possible.

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