Grapevine Archive for Phylloxera

Tue 24 Aug 2010

Brunel and the Bug

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The Society’s summer visit to ss Great Britain, in Bristol, was not only a wonderful culinary and vinous experience but also one that shed more light on the spread of the dreaded Phylloxera bug.

Cartoon from Punch, September 6, 1890

Cartoon from Punch, September 6, 1890

The sap-sucking insect was the blight of the French wine industry in the mid nineteenth century before sinking its talons into great swaths of European vineyards. It is estimated that the microscopic insect had destroyed 4 million French vineyards at the peak of its powers in the 1860’s.

That this little insect spread to Europe from North America in the 1850’s is a generally known fact. Yet, how had European scientists and botanist managed to experiment with North American vines, in Europe, for years prior to the infestation without any pestilential problems?

The answer would appear to lie with the nautical engineering skills of Brunel, among others. Prior to the advent of the steamship, the average sailing time across the Atlantic Ocean was a very sedate two months. Such a lengthy crossing time would have certainly been long enough to ensure that any living insects, attached to vines in-transit, were kaput.

A painting by Keith A. Griffin of the s.s. Great Britain in 1843

A painting by Keith A. Griffin of the s.s. Great Britain in 1843

Brunel and his fellow engineers transformed trans-Atlantic travel. The steamship cut the crossing time to a staggering fifteen days and revolutionised communications between both sides of the pond. It also, inadvertently, assisted in destroying French vineyards.

For those little insects, clinging to the vines in-transit, managed to endure the significantly shorter time at sea and so were very much alive and kicking by the time the boats docked in Europe.

And as soon as those famished, journey-fatigued insects set their eyes upon fresh, tasty, European vines, they had a field day.

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