Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved for the World,

by Christy Campbell





The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition; 1/10/2004

PHYLLOXERA, small, sap-eating, greenish insect of the genus Phylloxera, closely related to the aphid . Phylloxeras feed on leaves and roots, and many species produce galls on deciduous trees. Their life cycle is complex; one species is known to pass through 21 different stages. Most notorious of the group is the grape phylloxera, Phylloxera vitifoliae, native to E North America. The species has winged and wingless generations, the former causing galls on grape leaves and the latter feeding on the roots, causing nodules and eventually killing the vine. The grape phylloxera came close to destroying the wine industry of France after its accidental introduction in about 1860; grafting of susceptible European vines onto resistant North American root stock saved the European vineyards. Phylloxeras are classified in the phylum Arthropoda , class Insecta, order Homoptera, family Phylloxeridae.

PHYLLOXERA., The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition 2004







Glug bug

Malcolm Gluck on Christy Campbell's Phylloxera, a tale of the aphid that nearly destroyed French vineyards

Saturday March 13, 2004
The Guardian


Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved for the World
by Christy Campbell
256pp, HarperCollins, £17.99


This book really begins at chapter eight. It is here that the author, a former defence correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, finally introduces the human villain Monsieur Borty, in this tale of the microscopic aphid Phylloxera vastatrix (the dry-leaf devastator). It was so termed by Jules-Emile Planchon, the French botanist who identified the pest in the 1860s, but is now, in scientific circles at least, labelled Dactylasphaera vitifoliae. Between 1860 and 1900, it was responsible for nearly wiping out all French vineyards, and then infecting much of the rest of the world's.

It is not a topic, you might think, which could detain for long even those wine nerds whose bedside tables groan with arcane publications devoted to the great Medoc vintages or the influence of canopy management. Yet Christy Campbell's story, expertly retailored, would make a compelling TV drama, as its portrait of French and American viticulture and scientific agonising would make stunning viewing. This is a detective story with a romantic, contemplative ending (just what did great French wine taste like pre-Phylloxera? Will Phylloxera devastate afresh?).

Borty was the wine merchant whose imported American vine cuttings, planted in his Rhône vineyards in 1862, introduced Phylloxera to France, as the aphid lay in the roots. If Borty is the unwitting Moriarty, then Professor Planchon (whose writing style, from what I assume to be Campbell's translations of parts of the botanist's many papers, is fluent and witty), is emphatically the Holmes.

Over this complex saga, rich with politicians, peasants, pests and prats, of an incredible chapter in European ecological history, Campbell has indefatigable biographic control. We read that the ministry of agriculture offered a fortune in francs (by 1874 it stood at 300,000) to the discoverer of a cure for the blight, and hundreds of ideas were conceived. None was any good (though cannibalism, via a US bug called a tyroglyph, offered a brief glimpse of deliverance only to fail to find its French-infested Phylloxera sister appetising). The shower of amusing, idiotic, massively expensive and prohibititively poisonous solutions was unending, for the reward was colossal: not just the prize money, but seeing one's idea put to profitable use by tens of thousands of wine growers. By 1884, 2.5m acres "of France's vineyards had been destroyed" and 1.5m acres were in the grip of the parasite.

The answer, which our hero proposes, is found in the blight itself: since US vines can live with Phylloxera, grafting on to US root stock is the only solution (wide-spread chauvinism held that this would lead to the individual tastes of hundreds of French wines being destroyed; but this is nonsense as it is the grapes which provide the taste, the roots are merely a channel for sustenance). Our hero is vindicated, though a certain Leo Laliman unsuccessfully claims the prize.

By a series of prodigious grafting programmes, eventually Phylloxera is eliminated (or, rather, brought under control, to the extent that it no longer threatens annihilation, though sightings are sporadically reported everywhere from New Zealand to Napa and, worryingly, new forms are emerging). Planchon gets a statue (outside Montpellier railway station). The vignerons get back healthy vines. The 300,000 francs sits "unawarded in the vaults of the Banque de France".

Wine students, for whom this book would make a marvellous gift, may enjoy the tale, as will all members of the trade who regularly deal with vignerons across the Channel. All entomologists and amateur bug buffs must read it and whatever any member of the nerdist colony earlier referred to may have to shift from his dormitory pile in order to accommodate it, he should do so.

But just as sharks were just fish before Peter Benchley and then Steven Spielberg came along, Phylloxera may yet be transformed into an insatiable alien by the cunning of the film camera and Campbell's labours will at that point be adequately recompensed for the great amount of close reading and detailed writing he has accomplished in order to create this book.  

Malcolm Gluck's Why Water Just Won't Do: Wine Matters is published by Little Books.




When France withered on the vine
(Filed: 08/03/2004)

Christopher Bland reviews Phylloxera: How Wine was Saved for the World by Christy Campbell

This is an extraordinary story - a story of invasion, dogged French resistance hampered by anti-American feeling, painstaking and lengthy scientific inquiry, bungling by the French Ministry of Agriculture, and agrarian disaster on a massive scale.

The invader arrived on the right bank of the Rhône in 1862 in a case of American vines imported from New York by a Roquemaure wine-merchant, a Monsieur Borty. The vines carried in their roots the dry-leaf devastator, phylloxera vastatrix, a tiny yellow aphid which breeds with astonishing speed; a single female will produce 25.6 billion descendants in eight months without any male assistance.

The imaginative nephews of a French viticulturist described the insects "strolling along like good bourgeois going into a restaurant with walking-sticks in their hands" - the restaurant is the root of the vine, which the aphid pierces with its proboscis and feeds on until the host is completely destroyed.

After a slow start in the Midi, the disease spread from the French Alps to the Pyrenees. Margaux and Pauillac were threatened. By 1884 one million hectares of French vineyards had been destroyed, and a further 660,000 were dying. As the plague spread, church bells were rung in alarm, anti-phylloxera syndicates were formed, and a burn-or-perish approach was fitfully adopted.

The economic consequences for the French countryside were dire. It took 40 years for wine production to recover. French peasants abandoned their ruined vineyards and headed for Algeria, Argentina, and Chile, taking their wine-making skills with them. Consumption of Bordeaux plummeted; the officers' messes of smart regiments switched to whisky and soda, and the high Victorian habit of drinking champagne throughout dinner returned.

Meanwhile the Second Empire declared war on Prussia, MacMahon's army was routed at Sedan, and the Republic was proclaimed. Scientific investigation of phylloxera, unsurprisingly, slowed down, although Professor Signoret reported to a fellow scientist in a balloon-born letter from the siege of Paris that "though he himself was reduced to eating cats, dogs, and horseflesh, the phylloxera, which he had in boxes, kept well and in good health".

It took a long time to establish the cause and the cure. In Tuscany the "laying of long lines of iron through the soil" - the railways - were blamed, and several miles of track were torn up. The alarmed authorities in Florence urged the Church to suggest the wrath of God for mankind's sins as a preferable explanation.

Early remedies were equally fanciful. Cows' urine, powdered tobacco, walnut leaves, crushed bones dissolved in sulphuric aid, a cocktail of whale oil and petrol, hot sealing wax applied to pruning lesions, potassium sulphide dissolved in human urine, volcanic ash from Pompeii, marching bands, douches of elder-leaf tea, were all proposed to the Ministry of Agriculture, who had offered a prize of 300,000 gold francs for a cure. The prize still sits unawarded in the vaults of the Banque de France.

The solution lay in the cause. American root-stock, which had harboured the disease, was also resistant to it. Alas, the prejudice against American wine slowed down the cure. A correspondent in Le Temps wrote in 1878, after half-a-dozen tastings of American wines, "not one of those who took part had the courage to empty his glass". The editor proclaimed "any recourse to America should be forsworn until, should it come, the very day of defeat". It was not until the 1890s that large-scale replanting of French vineyards, grafting on the Texan St. George rootstock, began in earnest.

Now, of course, it is only the fortunate rich who ever taste pre-phylloxera French wine. Should you be lucky enough to be offered a glass of 1863 Latour, you will, according to the slightly corked prose of the Wine Spectator, enjoy "the texture of finest silk, with the aromas and flavour of tobacco, cigar box, leather, berries, plums and wet earth". A cheaper alternative to this $4,600 glass is provided by the admirable wines of Chile, which escaped the contagion entirely and now proudly advertise the fact.

There are two postscripts to Christy Campbell's astonishing, thoroughly researched and well-written story. The first is that by the turn of the century French wine production had outstripped consumption due to imports from Algeria, Italy and Spain, and wine made in France from raisins and beet sugar. The collapse in prices that followed in 1906 produced a tax strike, a marching song La Vigneronne, a Committee of Public Safety for the Defence of Viticulture, and riots in Narbonne in which six demonstrators were killed.

More recent and more ominous is the attempt in the 1960s by the viticulturists of the University of California to replace the St. George with the ominously named AxR1 rootstock. AxR1 performed wonderfully for a while, and was then attacked by phylloxera. Satellite and DNA technology helped to track the spread of infection, and Californian vineyards had to replant at an estimated cost of between half a billion and a billion dollars.

So when you drink your next glass of French wine, toast the heroes of the French Resistance to phylloxera vastatrix so elegantly celebrated in this book. And pray that the current experiments introducing DNA from the snowdrop into vine rootstocks don't uncork another vastatrix from the GM genie's bottle.

Christopher Bland is a viticulturist and Chairman of British Telecom.


The dreaded dry-leaf devastator
(Filed: 14/03/2004)

Hugh Massingberd reviews Phylloxera by Christy Campbell

Touring the vineyards of the lower Rhône valley in the South of France, and admiring their well-ordered air of tamed nature, one would never have guessed that this was once a scene of devastation. But in the mid-1860s, vines around Roquemaure began to wither and die; by the end of the 19th century, as the plague spread across Europe, almost the whole of France was "phylloxerated". This word has a zesty ring to it, reminiscent of the Irish expression "banjaxed", although the microscopic yellow insect to which it alludes, a tiny aphid named Phylloxera vastatrix ("the dry-leaf devastator") was no laughing matter.

Yet such are Christy Campbell's superb story-telling skills that, notwithstanding my woeful ignorance of science, botany and viticulture, I found myself utterly hooked on this fascinating piece of social history which throws light on the clash between the Old World and the New. For it was from America that both the cause of this ecological disaster, which threatened to destroy the French wine industry, and the cure came.

Eventually, it was established that the parasite had been accidentally imported from an American vine delivered to a wine merchant in Roquemaure in 1862. The solution, reached after decades of debate, was finally found to be the grafting of phylloxera-resistant American rootstock on to local vines. What could have been as dry as the dust into which the phylloxera turned the vines is rendered readable by Campbell's keen eye for character and diverting detail.

The star of the show is Jules-Emile Planchon, a botanist from Montpellier who had trained under Sir William Hooker at Kew. It was Planchon who spotted clumps of yellowish insects feasting on the roots of a still "healthy" vine. After some high-spirited boys, on guard duty at a vineyard, reported that they had seen "the insects strolling along like good bourgeois going into a restaurant with walking sticks in their hands", hysteria spread. How could the mysterious aphid, with its mind-bogglingly complex sex life, be stopped?

Bizarre suggestions were put forward ranging from Lourdes holy water, lard, herb tea, toads and tarweed to snail slime, jelly fish, whale oil and volcano ash from Pompeii. Marching bands, it was proposed, would drum the aphids out of their underground fastness. Carbon bisulphide, a volatile chemical used as an industrial solvent and to vulcanise rubber, was poured liberally into trenches dug around infected vine-footings. The aphids died, but so did half the vines.

Much faith was placed in the powers of urine, whether bovine, equine or human, dried or, as it were, fresh. In the Beaujolais, schoolboys were taken twice daily from their classes to urinate over vines. But while the French were happy to water the vineyards with the contents of the pissoir, they were less ready to drink the stuff. The first fruits of the transplanted American vines, supposedly coming to the rescue like the US Cavalry, were politely described as having "le goût de renard", and more earthily as "pissat de renard".

The champions of chemical insecticides ("les sulfuristes") battled against "les americaines", who had shown that the roots of certain American vines were unpalatable to the imported insect, until grafting proved "the magic bullet". As Campbell concludes, "grafting beat the aphid and ran the taste of fox to earth".

The obsessive Léo Laliman from Bordeaux, "the Attila of France's vines", claimed the credit, but as the Duchesse de Fitz-James pithily put it: "This innovator, the hero and at the same time the villain of the story, was so proud of having imported the American vines that he could never accuse himself of having paid the travel expenses of the phylloxera that travelled with them on the roots."

An eloquent memorial to another player in the saga, the viticulturist Gustave Foëx, at the Montpellier School of Agriculture, sums it all up in a characteristically sensual French manner. In the allegorical sculpture, a naked, nubile young americaine tenderly embraces a maturer female form representing France's noble, embattled vines. But, as Campbell argues in a stimulating postscript, this is no time for complacency. New strains of phylloxera are at large and the arguments over taste and genetic engineering rage on.





The Economist





A battle lost and won

May 6th 2004
From The Economist print edition

THE extraordinary modern-day influence of Robert Parker, an American, (see article) over the fate of the French wine industry might seem blasphemous and alien to traditionalists. But, as Christy Campbell's book on phylloxera illustrates, French wine and the United States go back a long way. In the 19th century, alien imports from America almost destroyed—and then saved—French wine for the world.

The phylloxera parasite came close to wiping the French wine industry off the map. It first appeared in the Rhône valley in the 1860s and rapidly spread throughout the wine-growing regions of France, spreading destruction in its wake. Eventually botanists worked out that the aphid had been accidentally imported on vines from the United States. For almost 30 years French winegrowers battled to combat the dastardly bug while wine yields plummeted. Scientists also slugged it out, as rival schools sought to come up with a cure for phylloxera. The French government sponsored a valuable prize for anyone who could come up with a solution—which drew in a predictable wave of quack solutions. Eventually the real answer was found. Introduce American vines that were resistant to the bug into French soil. The United States was the source of the problem and the solution.

The story of the battle against phylloxera is a complicated one, featuring a cast of long-forgotten scientists, bureaucrats and winemakers. Mr Campbell has clearly toiled diligently in the archives and works hard to bring his story alive. Great figures such as Darwin and Pasteur have walk-on parts and the battle against the bug is played out against the backdrop of dramatic events like the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune. The author also indulges in a little imaginative reconstruction: “Mr Marshall Pinckney Wilder sniffed the cork contemplatively. The wine-waiter's eyes flickered with alarm.” And so on. For all Mr Campbell's valiant efforts, however, his book seems unlikely to entrance the general reader. Those with an interest in the history of wine or botany or rural France might find it more rewarding, particularly if combined with a sturdy red.


May 27th 2004
From The Economist print edition

Root and branch reform

SIR – You tell us that noble rootstock was re-imported to France from American vineyards after French vines were ravaged by phylloxera in the late 19th century (“A battle lost and won”, May 8th). The Cousiño family, among others, had brought top quality French rootstock to Chile in the 1880s and this was also used to save the French wine industry from annihilation. Don't give those Californians all the credit.

Jean Nelson


French wine

Tipple trouble

May 6th 2004
From The Economist print edition

Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution
By William Echikson
Norton; 288 pages; $24.95

IF YOU have more money than you know what to do with, one good way to get through it is to buy expensive bottles of wine. Consumers have always known that the most prestigious and pricey wines are made by the top châteaux of Bordeaux—names such as Margaux, Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild—which are sanctified by generations of tradition. In the past 20 years, however, new names have begun to appear at the top of the Bordeaux price lists, upstarts such as Le Pin, Valandraud and Gracia. William Echikson's entertaining and opinionated portrait of the Bordeaux wine industry explains how this has happened.

His book, “Noble Rot”, succeeds on several levels. It is highly informative: a newcomer to Bordeaux wines seeking to understand the significance of the winemaker's terms, “right bank” and “left bank”, the “1855 classification”, garagiste, and so on, will find them explained in a lively and accessible way. Mr Echikson also has a journalist's eye for the entertaining anecdote and the telling detail. Finally, the book succeeds in its main goal, which is to provide a polemical (and doubtless controversial) examination of the nature of the wine industry in Bordeaux.

Its thesis is summarised by its title. In winemaking the term “noble rot” is used to describe how white grapes are allowed to rot on the vine as part of the process of making the highly prized sweet white wines of Sauternes. But for Mr Echikson it is also a description of the social and winemaking traditions of Bordeaux. His argument, in essence, is that the most famous chateaux of Bordeaux, based mainly on the left bank of the Gironde river, are often complacent and snobbish traditionalists who trade off their names. By contrast, a new group of producers, based on the right bank, is now making wines that are often superior to those of the left bank. These garagistes—so named because they often work out of a garage—have succeeded by dint of hard work and an openness to innovation.

At times the book's characters are a little too obviously typecast as “goodies” or “baddies”. The goodies are working-class Frenchmen who live on the right bank and whose cause is promoted by democratic Americans, who can see through the mystique of old Europe. (The book has a distinctly post-September 11th feel.) The baddies are the snobs of the left bank, in alliance with lazy and corrupt British wine critics. The chief goodie is Robert Parker, an American wine critic who has promoted many garagistes. “Noble Rot” does a fine job of examining the Parker phenomenon and showing how a single critic has developed such extraordinary influence. But at times Mr Echikson's portrait of Mr Parker slides into hagiography. He writes, “Like the garagistes, Parker isn't overwhelmed by tradition partly because he came from an ordinary middle-class family. He studied at public schools. He rode bicycles. He played sports.” Perhaps so. But even snobbish aristos have been known to ride bicycles; and “playing sports” is not necessarily proof of good character.

Still, while Mr Echikson does not disguise his likes and dislikes, he is also too honest a reporter to leave out difficult facts and dissenting opinions. He gives a full account of the controversy over the great Mr Parker's alleged conflicts of interest. More interestingly, he also airs the opinions of those who believe that Mr Parker's influence has been destructive rather than liberating. One such is Jean-Pierre Moueix, who as owner of Château Petrus, the most highly prized wine on the right bank, might be expected to be sympathetic to Mr Parker and the garagistes. Not so. The boss of Petrus fears that Mr Parker is discouraging finesse and refinement in favour of wines that are so powerful and alcoholic that they are more black than red. “He wants to lead us down a path to destruction,” says Mr Moueix mournfully. Fortunately, both Bordeaux and the world of wine are big enough to include fans of the Parker-school such as Mr Echikson as well as traditionalists like Mr Moueix and the aristos of the left bank. Wine appreciation, after all, is a matter of taste.



the world’s best science on your desktop

Wednesday 17 March 2004

Vol 428 No 6978 pp1-104

Rooting out the wine plague 

JEFFREY GRANETT reviews Phylloxera: How Wine was Saved for the World by Christy Campbell

Grape phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae Fitch) is an aphid-like insect native to North America that devastated European viticulture in the nineteenth century. On native American grapevines, the insect initiates galls on expanding vine leaves and immature roots, doing little harm to the plants' overall fitness. But when it finds itself on European vines (Vitis vinifera), its populations develop on mature storage roots, disrupting their function and introducing myriad secondary fungal pathogens, ultimately killing the vines. When the insect first arrived in France in the mid-nineteenth century, the damage it caused could not be attributed to it because it was essentially invisible, as it lived and fed below ground. This was the last place a grape grower of the time would look for a cause of symptoms observed above ground. In addition, phylloxera are tiny (less than a millimetre in length) and populations vanish on dying vines. Once the cause of the problem was discovered, there was no apparent solution. A large cash prize was offered for a cure and many off-the-wall ideas were tested, but the prize was never awarded. Removing and burning infested vines did not slow the spread. Carbon bisulphide fumigation of infested vines helped, but was not economically viable in the long term. The vineyards were eventually saved by using phylloxera-resistant native American vines, not as direct fruit producers (the taste of wine from American grape species was unacceptable), but as rootstocks. The technology for this was optimized for vineyard locations and soil types, and has been amazingly successful ever since. This story is dramatized in Phylloxera: How Wine was Saved for the World from the perspective of a wine lover. Christy Campbell focuses on how the people involved both in Europe and the United States went about solving the phylloxera problem. Science was clearly important, but so were the feelings and biases of the scientists and social progressives, the traditionalist wine growers, those out to make money, and the wine lovers, including some who held positions of authority. In this context, the role of the scientists was not only to devise methods and test ideas, but to convince the rest of the stakeholders of the need for particular points of view and courses of action. Campbell tells how the key scientific players — Leó Laliman, Jules-Émile Planchon, Louis Vialla and others — played the role of propagandists, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Their's was a science that clearly required subjective as well as objective thought. This approach to the phylloxera story is as important for the scientist to understand as it is for the layman. We must realize that even the most objective applied research is rarely convincing enough to find immediate utility without a lot of subjective interpretation, value judgements and soul searching. Campbell exemplifies this conflict with a lengthy description of the difficulties that the scientists faced in gaining acceptance of American vines as the solution to the phylloxera problem. American vines brought phylloxera to France in the first place, so how could their use be encouraged without increasing the risk of further phylloxera infestations and possibly opening up French viticulture to new, yet undiscovered scourges? How could the unacceptable 'foxy' taste of the American grapes not find its way into French wine, even if the American vines were used only as rootstocks? How can a noble French wine be truly noble and French if it owes a debt to wild, uncivilized American grapes? The definitive answers to these questions had to wait until the rootstocks had been in the ground and producing wine for a decade or more. The first users of the rootstock technology did not have enough facts — they needed to be convinced by the propaganda. The story as told by Campbell has a colourful array of heroes and charlatans, and is neither completely linear nor holistic — but nor was the phylloxera problem caused or solved completely from the top down or bottom up. But it is an exciting, compelling tale. Campbell's short description of possible uses for genetic engineering in his concluding section make it clear that such stories are not over even after you put the book down. For English readers who would like more information, George Ordish's The Great Wine Blight provides more science, as do viticultural histories such as Harry Paul's Science, Vine, and Wine in Modern France (reviewed in Nature 387, 670–671; 1997). Campbell's book is a fairly easy read, although the timeline gets a bit tangled occasionally. Its focus is on people solving a problem, but it provides enough science for the general reader to understand the controversies and the logic of the eventual outcome. Phylloxera ravaged Europe's vines until the use of American rootstocks led to French resistance.



Book Review: Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved for the World
By James Sullivan

Published: March 11 2004

Book Review: Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved for the World
by Christy Campbell
HarperCollins £ 17.99, 314 pages

There is an elaborate marble monument opposite the railway station in the French town of Montpellier, at the hub of one of France's greatest wine-producing areas. The inscription on this memorial to Jules-Emile Planchon, a scientist whose pioneering work helped to solve the problem of a plague that swept Europe's wine-growing areas in the second half of the 19th century, reads: "The American vine rescued the French vine to triumph over the phylloxera."

Another photograph in Christy Campbell's lively, non-specialist account of the drama of phylloxera shows a highly sentimental sculpture at La Gaillarde, a centre for experimental viticulture established more than a century ago. It is of two female figures: a young and nubile americaine embracing a rather raddled older woman who represents the ailing vines of France. It's a very peculiar and unsettling image.

Phylloxera are minuscule yellow aphid-like creatures that infest the roots of vines and kill them relentlessly.

In the 1860s and 1870s the infestation swept the continent from Portugal to the Crimea, threatening the very existence of the great wines of Europe, as well as the livelihood of countless small farmers and peasants. The issue was so grave, particularly in France, that the government offered a huge reward to anyone who could solve the problem.

Christy Campbell recounts the story of the scientists, horticulturalists, politicians, growers and wine experts who pitted themselves against the impending destruction of a way of life. The solution was discovered in the US, where certain New World vines were found to be naturally resistant to phylloxera. French vineyards were grubbed up by the hundred, but the early crops from the American roots were pronounced "undrinkable". Grafting the traditional strains on to imported roots turned out to be the answer - and the method is used to this day.

Ironically, the dreadful insects had been inadvertently introduced to Europe from the US in the first place. Research was so detailed that we even know the very plot, a wineseller's backyard in the little town of Roquemaure in the Gard, where the offending imports were planted in 1865.

This story of an early eco-disaster, and its solution, makes fascinating reading. Phylloxera still haunts the whole wine-growing world (California's Napa Valley has seen recent outbreaks), and it is tempting to read some geo-political metaphor into the notion that the noble French wines are grown only by being grafted on to hardy, disease-proof American rootstock.

But we should resist that fanciful notion: this is botany, pure and simple.


On the grapevine

Nicholas Lezard on Christy Campbell's thrilling tale of the grape-eating superbug Phylloxera

Saturday December 4, 2004
The Guardian

Phylloxera, by Christy Campbell (Harper Perennial, £8.99)

Wine is so fantastic, it even gets you drunk. But there was a time when it looked as though it was going to become a memory for everyone except, perhaps, the super-rich. This book has as its epigraph one of the most chilling moments from Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four : "'It is called wine,' said O'Brien with a faint smile. 'You will have read about it in books, no doubt.'"

The cause of wine's almost total disappearance (not in Orwell's book, but in the real world) was a vile-looking little insect, imported from America, which sucked at the roots of unresisting French vines until they died, at which point the murderous mite moved on to healthier stock.

It took a while for French vignerons to work out what was going on. You can't really see Phylloxera - and certainly not the eggs - without a good magnifying glass. And when you are dealing with peasants whose first language isn't even French (in many wine-producing regions, even in the late 19th century, it was Occitan), then other causes, attributable more to superstition than science, become plausible. In the Bordelais, labourers would "make crosses of hazel branches, bound by wicker and garlanded with flowers, to be blessed by priests on the first Sunday of May and planted in the awakening vineyards to ward off the evil. The Catholic church would grow alarmed as peasants invoked an older 'religion' of animist naturalism to spare them from the plague."

You may feel you know just about enough regarding Phylloxera to get by on. Bug eats vines, vines are grafted on to American rootstock, vines recover. Some mystery lingers as to whether pre-Phylloxera wine tasted any different, but on the whole this is a theoretical debate - and anyway, you drink Wolf Blass's excellent Cabernet-Shiraz on offer at a fiver a bottle from Majestic, so who really cares?

This is not an attitude you should be particularly proud of. (For a start, not even Australia escaped Phylloxera.) Christy Campbell has written a story of scientific endeavour, courage and intransigence. In the case of French vintners, we are dealing with one of the most tenacious kinds of intransigence you can possibly imagine. Add as a background the fact that Darwin's ideas on natural selection - of which the march, and retreat, of Phylloxera were to provide textbook illustrations - had received an extremely chilly reception in France. As had American wines, which received zero points in blind tastings and the puzzlingly uniform description, intended as an insult, "foxy". Chauvinism may not have been the only force at work, though - the American vine, which had evolved since the separation of the land masses of Europe and the Americas, produced grapes that only the most eccentric, or tolerant, or thirsty would want to turn into wine. But by the time Phylloxera had nearly reduced French vines to extinction, that was all you could get (it was called "the wine of the resistance, the wine of the anarchists, the wine that drives you mad", and it was in fact revived in 1993 by some enthusiasts in the Ardèche). But by that stage people were desperately turning alcohol from grape must, beetroot, sugar - almost anything, really - into "wine" by adding all sorts of unsavoury ingredients. (Campbell does not mention that the rise of absinthe was one of Phylloxera's knock-on effects, but I believe it was.)

Campbell is perhaps a tiny bit severe on those who resisted the only viable solution - the grafting of European vines on to American rootstock. After all, they were worried the taste would be affected, a rather important consideration, and it was the American plant which had contaminated the soil in the first place. But it proved to be the only answer - and Campbell should be credited for telling what could have been an abstruse and specialised story in such a readable fashion.

Incidentally, if you want to find out what wine from ungrafted French rootstock tastes like, you still have a couple of options. One is Bollinger's "Vieilles Vignes Françaises", and the other is much cheaper. But I won't tell you what it is here. You're going to have to get the book. This may strike you as mean of me, but Mr Campbell deserves some reward.