Grape philoxera plagueGrape philoxera plague

Grape phylloxera and the history of Rioja wine

In the exciting world of wine, the phylloxera epidemic emerged as an unexpected protagonist which has left an indelible mark. In this article, as winemaking experts, we’ll explore the complexity of this insect and its impact on the production of wine and cava. From the ravages caused by the phylloxera plague to long-lasting solutions, we’ll examine how the winegrowing landscape has transformed over time. 


What is phylloxera in wine and what does it attack?

Phylloxera is a tiny insect belonging to the Phylloxeridae family and is a major challenge in the world of wine. This invasive insect, just millimeters long, can rapidly spread through the soil, making it a stealthy and defiant nemesis. In fact, its parasitic lifestyle sucks out vital and essential nutrients from the soil, progressively weakening the plants of the different grape varieties. 
As such, it has the potential to unleash significant ravages in the various types of vineyards, by attacking the roots of the vines. In this context, this small creature becomes more than a simple insect—it is the catalyst that has driven fundamental changes in winemaking. Because of this, its presence has forced the industry to adopt innovative approaches to ensure the continuous resistance and health of vineyards. 


What caused phylloxera in Europe and what were the consequences?

In the mid-19th century, phylloxera spread as a devastating plague, blighting European vineyards and triggering an unprecedented crisis in the continent’s winemaking structure. In France, the phylloxera epidemic seriously threatened the renowned wine-making regions, from Burgundy to Bordeaux, as a result of the uncontrolled spread of this invasive insect. It caused a complete reconfiguration of the winemaking landscape, forcing winegrowers to replant and reconsider their agricultural practices. 
The consequences were disastrous and affected not only the winemaking economy, but also the culture and identity of producer regions. Phylloxera caused massive crop losses, reducing the quality of wine and threatening valuable grape varieties with extinction. In addition, it resulted in the loss of various age-old traditions and changes in local cuisine.


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How was phylloxera combatted?

The cure for this plague was neither a simple nor immediate process, but the result of arduous labor, cross-cutting collaboration, and the application of innovative methods. Therefore, the big question was: how do we combat grape phylloxera? Faced with the devastation caused by the plague in European vineyards, winegrowers, scientists, and enologists came together to find solutions that could reverse the ravages. Below, we’ve detailed the main approaches that were adopted to combat phylloxera and its treatments: 


- Development of resistant vines: This is the most effective and long-lasting response. In fact, this solution has become a standard practice in modern winegrowing, guaranteeing the health and longevity of the vines. Through meticulous breeding and selection processes, vine strains were identified that demonstrated natural resistance to the plague’s attack. These resistant varieties were used as rootstocks; in other words, they were grafted with the desired grape varieties to form more robust plants, capable of resisting this insect and achieving high-quality white wines and, also, red wines, free of chemical treatments. 

- Grafting as a solution: A technique that took advantage of the vine plants’ capacity to form compatible unions, allowing resistant varieties to fuse together with traditional grape varieties. This process made it possible to preserve the desirable characteristics of the wine while guaranteeing resistance against the invasive insect. 

- Intensive scientific research: Agricultural scientists and enologists carried out extensive research on the biology of grape phylloxera and the interactions between vines and the soil. This deeper knowledge made it possible to develop more effective strategies for selecting resistant varieties and to better understand how to prevent the plague’s spread. 

- International collaboration: Given the cross-border nature of the plague, the knowledge and experience shared between different affected winemaking regions facilitated a more effective and rapid response. This collaboration also extended to scientific and governmental institutions, setting a benchmark for global cooperation in agricultural matters. 

- Implementation of integrated control practices: These were adopted in order to limit the spread of this parasite. These practices included the disinfection of agricultural tools, restricting the movement of farm equipment, and the application of preventive measures in as-yet unaffected areas. 


As these strategies were implemented together, the spread of this invasive insect was contained, and the foundations were set to recover European vineyards. Although the plague left an indelible mark on the history of wine, the tenacity and innovation of the winemaking community made it possible to stand up to this challenge, resulting in the creation of more resistant and sustainable vineyards in the process. 
Today, thanks to these innovative solutions and the knowledge acquired on how to handle this plague, the wine industry has managed to mitigate the impact of this parasite compared to the devastation caused in the past. Winegrowers continue to closely monitor their vineyards and apply preventive measures to avoid the insect’s spread and maintain the health of their vines. 


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Phylloxera and La Rioja, a unique opportunity

Phylloxera plagues swept through the vineyards of France in the mid-19th century. It was then that the winemakers of Bordeaux discovered types of vineyards in the Rioja area with characteristics most similar to their own, as close as possible to their home country. They came here to source wine in bulk in order to continue production and respond to the high demand for wine generated in France due to the fall in national production. 

In the end, the French decided to settle in La Rioja and began to implement their winemaking methods, along with founding their own companies, making the La Estación district of Haro home to the largest concentration of hundred-year-old wineries in the world. One of these wineries was Savignon Freres et Cie, which passed into the hands of a group of Bilbao business owners in 1901 and formed the famous Bodegas Bilbaínas company. In 1925, Bodegas Bilbaínas became part of the D.O.Ca. Rioja, the oldest and most prestigious in our country. This great winery offers us high-quality Reserve wines like Viña Pomal Reserva, with intense and elegant notes of red berries and a touch of toasted vanilla. 


When did the phylloxera plague appear in Spain?

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the grape phylloxera plague arrived in Spain, setting off a race against time to protect the vineyards and preserve the diversity of indigenous grape varieties. In fact, it marked a turning point in the history of Spanish winemaking, kicking off a frenzied search for local solutions and adaptation strategies.


When did the phylloxera plague arrive in Catalonia?

In addition to other areas on the Iberian Peninsula, Catalonia witnessed the arrival of grape phylloxera in the last decade of the 19th century. This not only represented an agricultural challenge; it also influenced the evolution of winemaking practices and the diversity of the grape varieties that were cultivated. 
Despite the initial challenges, Catalan winegrowers demonstrated great capacity to adapt and managed to overcome the ravages of this parasite. 
In conclusion, as we have seen, phylloxera has left an indelible mark on the history of wine, transforming the industry and challenging winegrowers to innovate and adapt. Through adversity, a new era of resilience and sustainability emerged in winegrowing, allowing us to enjoy maximum-quality wines today like those you can find in our online wine store.