Burgundy for the Senses, Bordeaux for the Mind

Tim Atkin

  • Science, Vine and Wine in Modern France by Harry Paul
    Cambridge, 355 pp, £45.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 521 49745 0

‘Without the discovery of America,’ Flaubert noted in the Dictionnaire des idées reçues, ‘we would have neither syphilis nor phylloxera.’ Both imports were catastrophic and, at one point, seemed incurable. Phylloxera was only one of a series of quasi-Biblical scourges visited on the French vignoble (oidium in 1846, downy mildew in 1878, black rot in 1885, not to mention the depredations of the Great War), but it was by far the most serious. The root-munching aphid, which was transported by steamship from its native America to Europe on infected vine cuttings, was first discovered in France by the Vaucluse Agricultural Society on a scientific field trip to the Rhône Valley in 1868. Félix Sahut, Gaston Bazille and Jules-Emile planchon were looking for the cause of the mysterious disease which had begun to kill vines in the south of France five years earlier. It was Planchon who named the insect Phylloxera vastatrix. By the end of the century, it had cost the country more than 35 billion francs – the sum needed to treat, uproot, graft and replant 2.5 million hectares of vines.

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