The Great French Wine Blight was a blight that destroyed more than 40% of French vineyards in the 1860s and 1870s. The blight had a serious impact on French winemaking and French culture and allowed some North American and European vineyards to fill the void by establishing themselves as wine powerhouses in their own right. The history of French wine blight illustrates the unexpected weaknesses that can appear even in very old vintages.
This complicated story begins in the 1600s when Europeans noted that European grape varieties would not grow in North America. They didn’t understand why this might be but settled for growing North American grapes or grafting European grape varieties onto North American rootstock, which seemed to solve the problem. Although European colonists did not realize it at the time, the problem was caused by phylloxera aphids, which destroyed the rootstock of weak European grapes that had not been exposed to these aphids.
Some researchers who have studied the Great French Wine Blight have suggested that aphids could not have survived on sailing ships used for transit before the 19th century. By 1863, phylloxera was present in France and killing vineyards, but people were slow to understand what was happening and several possible causes were identified for the French wine blight.
Eventually, the French realized that the problem was aphids and that these aphids had colonized Europe, making them impossible to eradicate. In response, vineyards in France and other countries affected by blight began grafting traditionally European grapes onto North American rootstock. In France, this process was known as “reconstitution” and was not without controversy, as some felt it compromised the integrity of French vineyards and wine.
Today, so-called “pre-phylloxera” vintages made before the French wine blight fetch high prices when they come up for sale. Some wine aficionados claim that the French wine blight fundamentally changed the nature of French wine and winemaking and that pre-phylloxera vintages are markedly different from wines produced in rehabilitated vineyards. Given the numerous factors that can affect the taste of wine, especially after hundreds of years of cellaring, it is difficult to determine whether these claims hold water.
A Modern History of French Wine
As the centuries passed, French wine became the darling of the royal courts of France and its neighboring countries. It was considered fashionable, elegant, and sophisticated to drink fine wines produced from the same regions that continue to produce fine wines today, and by the 18th century, the Bordeaux region and châteaux that can still be found were famous throughout Europe. His wines are of singular quality.
However, in the 19th century, French wine suffered a nationwide blight that temporarily shut down the wine industry, leaving many grape varieties nearly extinct on local soil. Thanks to a global effort to bring new strains of native grapes from the New World back to France, the country soon stood on its feet once more and quickly re-established itself as the world’s most successful wine-producing nation.
The 20th century saw a whole range of new laws and regulations regarding wine quality and attempts to keep the characteristics of each region strong and authentic. After World War II, A.O.C regulations were put in place, and since then, the quality of French wines has been carefully controlled to ensure that the country’s regions continue to influence the world market.