The 3 vine pests that threatened European vineyards in the 19th century

Vine pests can be controlled through continuous monitoring and preventive work


Powdery mildew, downy mildew and phylloxera were three vine pests that devastated European vineyards in the 19th century until science helped to control them

The 19th century was very turbulent in Europe. The Industrial Revolution, liberalism and the consolidation of the bourgeoisie as the ruling class were some processes that transformed the continent from top to bottom. In Spain, the century began with the French invasion and the War of Independence and ended with the disaster of 98 and the loss of the overseas colonies. In between, the Carlist wars, the military pronunciamientos, a brief republic and three vine pests that put vineyards all over Europe in check.

Since Christopher Columbus arrived in America in 1492, the continent on the other side of the Atlantic has provided us with precious goods such as gold, products that revolutionised our gastronomy such as cocoa and goods that have become staple foods in our daily lives such as potatoes.

However, throughout the 19th century, three vine pests arrived from America that devastated the vineyards, caused the disappearance of native species, generated poverty and put the brakes on creating a wine industry in regions such as the Rías Baixas. We discuss cryptogamic diseases, powdery and downy mildew, and the phylloxera insect.

Join us on a journey through the greatest wine-growing crisis in history, caused by three concatenated vine plagues that gave European winegrowers no rest and even threatened the survival of a thousand-year-old variety such as Albariño.

The black plague of the vineyards

In the middle of the 14th century, Europe suffered an unprecedented epidemic caused by the Black Death or bubonic plague outbreak. Its level of virulence and spread caused unprecedented levels of mortality. It is estimated that the population of the Iberian peninsula fell from 6 million to less than 3 million.

Despite the enormous distances, we can draw an analogy between the Black Death and the three vine plagues that devastated European vineyards from the mid-19th century until the first third of the 20th century, when phylloxera was eradicated from the vineyards. Why?

It devastated thousands of hectares of vineyards all over Europe, from England, where the powdery mildew disease was discovered, to France, the tremendous wine-growing power of the time, which suffered the death of its ancient vineyards and even had to export wine from other countries.

After the end of the crisis, vine growing and winemaking not only recovered but experienced exponential growth, becoming an industry that employs thousands of people and generates substantial benefits for wineries and local communities in wine-growing regions. Thus, as with the Black Death, wine producers overcame and emerged stronger, just as European nations did after the Black Death, incorporating basic hygiene and sanitary measures to deal with subsequent pandemics.

Powdery Mildew

What was the first of the vine pests that ravaged Europe in the mid-19th century? Powdery mildew.

This disease, which originated in North America and whose scientific name is oidium tucker, after the gardener who discovered it, was first detected in London in 1845.

Six years later, powdery mildew had already spread to the main wine-growing areas of Europe: Bordeaux, Oporto, Valencia, Rheinfalz… From then on, it was impossible to stop its spread throughout the wine-growing regions of the continent.

What is powdery mildew? This fungal disease attacks key elements of vines, such as leaves, shoots and even bunches.

The fungus is visible as white spots, especially on new shoots and leaves. Hence, for example, in the monastery of Oia, located in the Albariño area, the plague was described as “a kind of sulphurous smoke that caused the total loss of the harvest”. Beneath this powdery smoke, it is possible to see necrosis symptoms, which causes the grapes not to grow and, therefore, the harvest to be lost, as the monks of Oia stated.

Powdery mildew develops, above all, in areas with little sunlight, high temperatures and very high humidity levels.

To give an idea of the impact of powdery mildew on wine production in Europe, we can highlight two facts. France produced 45 million hectolitres of wine in 1850. Only four years later, the harvest was reduced to only 11 million hectolitres.

As far as Spain is concerned, the wine-growing regions most affected by the first vine pests were the coastal ones: Catalonia, Valencia and Galicia. Why? The proximity of the sea increases humidity.

Downy mildew is one of the major vine pests

Downy mildew. Oil stains that attack the vines

Unlike the other two vine pests, the first place where this fungus was detected in Europe was not in England but in France. Like powdery mildew, it is a cryptogamic disease that manifests after high temperatures and humidity.

Why did downy mildew arrive in Europe? This pathogen was present in the vines brought from North America to be grafted onto European vines and to eradicate the last vine plagues that devastated the continent during the Enlightenment: phylloxera.

So when we talk about vine pests, we should not only point out that they occurred concatenated, but that they were interconnected due to the desperate struggle to find solutions to the viticultural crises.

How is mildew detected on the vines? Yellow oily spots start to appear on the face of the leaves, while white mould can be observed on the reverse side. If no action is taken to stop mildew, the fungus spreads throughout the green organs of the vines, causing damage to the buds and even the blossoms and bunches.

To this day, downy mildew is still a threat to vineyards. This is why winegrowers carry out preventive work and pay special attention to the vines to detect and combat mildew symptoms immediately.

Phylloxera. When vine pests went biblical

According to the Old Testament, God punished Egypt for its failure to liberate the Hebrew people by inflicting ten plagues on them. Several insects were involved (mosquitoes, flies, locusts, grasshoppers, etc.). Hence, the third of the vine plagues that struck Europe in the 19th century had biblical connotations. Unlike the other two vine plagues, the protagonist was not a fungus but an insect in this one.

The phylloxera insect of American origin was detected for the first time in Europe, in England, in 1863, as had happened with powdery mildew. It reached the present continent in grapevines imported from America because of their resistance to powdery mildew.

Phylloxera is an aphid that feeds on the juice present in the roots of the vines, which means that these cannot develop, and its action favours the appearance of fungi and the rotting of the plants.

Its proliferation in French vineyards was immediate and devastating, but it spread to the whole continent sooner or later, from Germany in 1875 to Spain in 1875. In fact, at the beginning of 1900, when the pest could be controlled, and the reconstruction of vineyards was underway, it was found that, after the wine-growing crisis, the area dedicated to vine cultivation in our country had been reduced by half.

How did the vineyards survive the vine pests?

The impact of vine pests went beyond the vineyards and was felt in the daily life of society. As a result, winegrowers and governments have embarked on an accelerated race to find solutions to the three vine pests. The French government offered up to 300,000 francs to the person who could find a way to end phylloxera.

What did these solutions consist of?

  • Powdery mildew. Sulphur was used to combat powdery mildew, as it was discovered in England to be a very effective measure. In addition to applying sulphur as a preventive measure, essential vineyard care activities such as green pruning and leaf removal are also carried out to facilitate optimum ventilation.
  • Mildew. The fight against mildew required the design of phytosanitary products capable of defeating the fungus. Nowadays, both preventive phytosanitary products and preparations are used to prevent the formation of spores that could contaminate the vine as a whole.
  • Phylloxera. In the case of phylloxera, it was decided to graft European vines onto rootstocks originating in America. Why? These vines had already adapted to the action of the insects, so they were resistant to their attacks. In the Rías Baixas, the main vines used were those of the Riparia and Rupestris genera.
Phylloxera was one of the vine pests that threatened the survival of the European wine industry

How did these vine pests affect Galicia and the Rías Baixas?

We must remember that vine pests had a different impact in all European wine-growing regions. Areas like Monterrei or Valdeorras in Galicia were more affected than the Rías Baixas.

What were the consequences of each vine pest that disrupted life in Galician vineyards?

Powdery mildew

The effects of the powdery mildew plague were devastating in Galicia. The Galician climate favoured this fungal disease: high humidity and temperatures ranging from mild to high.

Its arrival in Galicia was due to contagion from Portuguese vineyards, which were infected earlier, and by 1953 it was a widespread disease in all wine-growing areas, including the Rías Baixas. Until 1960, the plague proved uncontrollable, decimating harvests and reducing winegrowers’ incomes. Farmers lacked sufficient resources to use sulphur treatments.

Within this severe scenario, Rías Baixas was not the worst affected region, but other wine-growing areas, such as Ribeiro or Valdeorras, suffered more significant losses. Moreover, the vines grown in the north of Galicia practically disappeared.

The first vine pests and other factors, such as poor cereal harvests and the population explosion, provoked an enormous economic and social crisis in Galicia. As a result, from the mid-19th century onwards, there was a massive emigration of Galicians to America.

What began as a plague that travelled across the ocean turned into countless ships full of Galicians searching for a better life in the New World.

Mildew

Of the three vine pests we are analysing, mildew was the one that arrived the latest in Galicia in 1885, just three years after phylloxera arrived. Its effects on Galician wine-growing areas were less devastating than those caused by the other vine pests. This was mainly because the Bordeaux mixture was applied reasonably quickly, unlike sulphur treatments against powdery mildew.

Regarding Rías Baixas, it is essential to point out that although all varieties are susceptible to mildew attack, Albariño is one of the most sensitive to the fungus. This is why winegrowers and wineries in this appellation work continuously to prevent mildew.

Phylloxera

Like the other two vine pests of nineteenth-century origin, phylloxera wreaked havoc in Galician vineyards.

It is estimated that the plots of land devoted to vine cultivation decreased from 31,000 hectares to less than 22,000 at the beginning of the 20th century when the plague broke out.

The plague in Galicia originated in the Monterrei region in 1882 and spread to the rest of the territory. However, it was devastating in this region, in Valdeorras and the Ribeira Sacra. Its spread was halted when it reached Ribeiro because its sandy soils prevented the phylloxera insects from reaching the vines’ roots.

In addition to the death of plants and economic losses, the main consequence of phylloxera was the disappearance of native varieties such as albarello and the decline of other varieties, including albariño.

The vineyards affected by phylloxera were rebuilt using American rootstock. However, many winegrowers took advantage of the situation to introduce varieties that were not native because they offered higher productivity, such as Garnacha or Tempranillo.

Thus, the third of the vine pests led to a transformation of Galician vineyards, reducing the presence of native grape varieties such as albariño, godello and treixadura. This process would take decades to be reversed. However, in the Rías Baixas, albariño is a monoculture, and in other designations of origin, such as Ribeiro or Monterrei, godello and treixadura are once again predominant.

Pazo Baión uses cutting-edge techniques and products to prevent vine pests

Science and industrialisation, the positive effects of the wine crisis

As has happened recurrently throughout history, the successful fight against vine pests catalysed scientific advances such as the development of phytosanitary products, the perfecting of techniques such as grafting and the intelligent and continuous management of vineyards to prevent the appearance of vine pests or, at least, to detect them early on.

Thus, the millenary art of vine cultivation faced the 20th century with more means, knowledge and tools. The main technological discoveries have gradually been incorporated into the care of the vines. Nowadays, digital devices are used in vineyards to control essential aspects such as temperature or humidity and to act efficiently to avoid any incident that could affect the health of the vines and the quality of the harvests.

The arrival of science and technology in the wine sector has meant that since the beginning of the 20th century, the industry has been at the forefront of innovation. It has also become more professional, thanks to the establishment of wineries specialising in cultivating indigenous vines and producing quality wines.

Millennia, after humankind discovered that he could vinify grape must, wines have become beverages of paramount importance worldwide and the driving force behind entire regions.

If 150 years ago it was difficult for sulphur to reach the vineyards of the Rías Baixas, today it is possible to drink a glass of Albariño in Sydney. A winegrower who fought against vine pests during the second half of the 19th century would be astonished by the radical transformation of a wine-growing sector capable of importing wines worldwide.

Pazo Baión is a vineyard that continued to thrive after the vine pests

Hidden in the heart of the Rías Baixas, a few kilometres from the Arousa estuary, the Pazo Baión estate witnessed the crisis caused by the three vine pests from America.

That is why Pazo Baión does not only stand out for the quality of the only single-estate Albariño wines, its valuable architectural heritage or its sublime natural landscapes. One of its most important attractions is its history and legacy.

Over five centuries, this property has survived all kinds of crises. Its main constant has been the cultivation of vines and the production of wine, even during the wine crisis of the 19th century.

Pazo Baión is a privileged setting for understanding the effects of vine pests on the territory and the people who live there. Why?

As we pointed out earlier, the vine pests became a factor that fuelled an economic crisis that triggered the mass emigration of hundreds of thousands of Galicians. Well, one of those emigrants, Adolfo Fojo, would return to Galicia in the decade of the 10s of the 20th century to buy the property of Pazo Baión and continue making wines: all this, thanks to the money obtained in Argentina.

This estate has changed radically in the last 100 years without renouncing its essence.

Today, Pazo Baión has a highly experienced viticulture team with extensive knowledge in fighting against vine pests such as mildew. Each plot is cared for in an exhaustive and personalised way to prevent disease from affecting the vines and the harvest. For this reason, we continuously welcome students and professionals who wish to learn about precision and artisan viticulture that combines traditional knowledge with scientific advances and the most innovative techniques.

In short, Pazo Baión is the ideal place to buy Albariño wine and understand that history is cyclical and that relations between Europe and America are as complex and fascinating as the best wines.

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