Wine in the Time of Pestilence V

My last few posts have explored how the Covid-19 pandemic is intersecting with different cultural and social norms to change people’s attitudes to and behaviour with wine.  The danger hasn’t passed but many countries are at the point of leaving lockdown or confinement.  Thus, although we aren’t at that point yet, in the next few posts I’m keen to explore how the world of wine may change in the post-pandemic world. However, first I want to ponder a little bit of history.  This isn’t just because I like history; I’m hoping it may also set a bit of the framework for the next three or four posts I’m planning (so for those who really don’t like history, stay tuned for my next post). I’ve already written briefly about Phylloxera in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic – but I think that a further exploration of how it changed wine, wine consumption and the wine industry, may be helpful in thinking about how the current plague may reshape our world.  Phylloxera, of course, was an insect and not a disease, and whilst it devastated vineyards it was never dangerous to humans as Covid-19 is; no one died from its activity.  Nevertheless, within the very limited world of wine production its impact was overwhelming, undermining established businesses and transforming everything from viticultural methods to regional reputations and market preferences.  However, I would suggest that its major impact was not revolutionary; it overturned nothing.  Rather it was a catalyst; it did nothing new but accelerated what was already happening.

This is best explored by looking at the Champagne region (although it had a similar impact throughout Europe).  Phylloxera arrived in the southern part of Champagne in 1888 but it took another four years for it to get to the centre of the vineyard area.  It spread slowly there, so only reached its peak a little before the First World War.

In 1888 champagne was produced from a large area – somewhere around 50,000 hectares of vineyard land (but down from perhaps 80,000 a few decades before).  Despite the success of the fizz on international markets over the previous 40 years wine production in the region was of predominantly still, red (or deep pink) wine.  It might be made for local consumption or sold quite cheaply, mainly locally and in northern France, including Paris, as well as Belgium.  Yet, it was comparatively expensive to produce in a cooler climate; yields were much lower than now and the cold meant that vintage variation was substantial, both in quality and quantity.  Since the railway link between Paris and Languedoc had been finished less than 40 years before southern French wine producers, blessed with sunshine that offered consistent, large volumes, had been selling cheaper, red wine to the metropolis, made from high-yielding varieties like aramon and carignan.

The vineyards in Champagne were owned by small-scale growers (sometimes farmers rather than just vignerons) and they would have seemed – to modern eyes – a mess, with vines planted higgledy-piggledy in the vineyard at many more plants per hectare than the current 10,000.  When you needed a new vine, you buried the shoot from an existing plant, let it root, then cut it off from the mother (the same system is still used in some parts of the world – notably Santorini).  The grapes included all the ones known today (though without so much chardonnay) but also such lower quality varieties as alicante and gouais.

Sparkling wine, although the minority of production, was growing, produced by the négociant elite who became wealthy on the back of its success.  The vignerons, of course, could not afford the capital needed to produce fizz, nor could they afford to leave it in their cellars for a few years to mature.  Increasingly there were disputes between the négociants and the growers: the former focusing on branding (and willing to be fuzzy about exactly where ‘champagne’ came from in order to keep the raw material cheap) and the latter seeking to defend the economic territory from which their grapes came and concerned to push the price up given the success of the sparkling wine.

So, what changed after the insect destroyed the vineyards?  The first thing was that many small growers – already impoverished as the négociants were paying them so little – gave up.  Planting new vines from cuttings cost nothing: buying Phylloxera-resistant rootstocks was expensive, and they could not afford it.  The contraction of the vineyard, already taking place, was accelerated.  Many sites became arable or root-cropped and if land had good potential as vineyard it was bought by those with money: négociants and richer growers. 

Much of the land given up was planted with red grapes, and the supply of cheaper red wine, both locally and to Paris and Belgium, dried up – Languedoc had won the battle for the Parisian working man’s throat.  The focus in Champagne evolved to be entirely on sparkling wine.

In turn, this augmented the power of the négociants as they had the capital to make, age, and export sparkling wine.  And with that power they could press down even more the price paid for grapes from the growers – whose sole role now was to supply the négociants.  In the longer term, moreover, it accelerated the development of grower cooperatives, which were being founded just as Phylloxera arrived.

What also happened, though, were a series of changes which were used to reinforce the quality and reputation of champagne – and thus justify the high price charged for it.  The first of these was a long struggle (only really completed in the second quarter of the 20th century) to rely only on the ‘quality’ grapes (chardonnay and the two pinots – noir and meunier) and push out the lesser varieties.  This has become part of the mythology of champagne – that only these three will do for great wine.

Alongside this was the battle – again one which pre-existed Phylloxera – to determine what champagne is; that is, what it represents.  Was it a style of wine, made by a well-known House, or was it wine made from a specific and clearly marked place?  The latter view was that of the growers, because limiting the origin of the grapes preserved their scarcity and thus enhanced the growers’ bargaining power.  In the end this was a battle the growers won (with the support of some of the more perceptive négociants who saw that to underline the reputation of the place Champagne would add other forms of value to their wine).  Ultimately this focus on place as the defining character of wine (which was being articulated at the same time in some other French wine regions) led to the appellation system in the 1930s and the modern world’s focus on origin as a defining label for a wine (unlike, say, beers, or many spirits).

Thus, a pestilence changed champagne, and in turn shaped the modern world of wine.  (For those who want to know more about this evolution there is a great book by an American historian, Kolleen Guy, When Champagne became French: Wine and the making of a national identity.)  Phylloxera changed viticulture, industry structure, image management and wine styles.  Yet the key point I’m making – and one which will give the context for my next posts – is that in the end the louse did nothing new; what it did was just accelerate the pace of change which was already happening.  It was not a cause, it was a catalyst.