‘When the French wine industry was brought to its knees by an aphid.’

Issue #14     May, 2020

May is here and we have yet again emerged from the cold war, otherwise known as winter. Meanwhile, as we continue in the battle against Covid-19, easy access to the wine shelves of the LCBO remains a little ways off.  And finding the wine you’re looking for can still be a bit like finding toilet paper. That said, in this issue, we’ll get to know a red, a white and as always, an under the radar wine with the hope they are indeed findable. But I’m confident if anyone can find them, we can.

Welcome back to the cellar.

While we are all dealing with these unsettling times, I thought you might be interested in hearing of another time, when the French wine industry faced a daunting and uncertain future.

It was the mid-19th century when it was attacked and devastated, not by a virus, but by a tiny sap-sucking, aphid.

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The little insect is known as Phylloxera. Ugly little bugger, but let’s call him Phyl. Well, little Phyl proceeded to lay waste to the grapevines of Europe, South Africa, and New Zealand. And he left in his wake, considerable economic collateral damage. It was what became known as The Great French Wine Blight.

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France has many of these Stone Phylloxera Crosses. They mark sites where the pest first appeared.
They were covered with religious symbols and inscriptions to ward off the infestation.

Here’s how it happened. In the 1860s, botanists in Victorian England began importing American grapevines. Phyl had never been overseas so he hopped a ride. Back in America he only liked to munch on the leaves of grapevines, but in England and then more so in France, he developed a voracious appetite for not just the leaves but the roots of indigenous vines. As you can imagine the results were catastrophic. Grape growers became so desperate in France, one of the measures taken was to bury a live toad under each vine to draw out the “poison”.

In time (about 30 years) the wine industry figured out that if they grafted French vines onto American rootstocks Phyl might just revert to his less destructive ways and wouldn’t have the munchies for the vine’s roots.   

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A French vine grafted onto an American root stalk.

The short story is, it worked. For the most part, Phyl lost his appetite. Had American rootstock not been available and ingeniously used the way it was, there would be no wine industry in Europe or most places other than Chile, Washington State, and most of Australia. Oddly enough, California had an outbreak of Phylloxera in the 1980’s. But today, all is well again and lucky for us we get to enjoy wine from all over the world thanks to some brilliant biologists and viticulturists of the past.

Now I know what you’re thinking. When is he going to talk about some wine from this century?  Okay. Here we go.

Due to the availability challenges mentioned earlier, I’ve decided to put a bug in your ear about three bottles that are part of the LCBO’s Essentials list. These wines are usually always available so there shouldn’t be any lunch-bag letdown when you get to the store.

Spain suffered greatly in the great wine blight, (as we now know, there was nothing great about it) but it’s eventual recovery made way for this very nice red from Rioja.

Beronia Reserva 2015 steps just over the $20 threshold but that extra $1.95 investment pays great taste dividends.

Beronia Reserva
Rioja, Spain
750 mL  bottle  VINTAGES#:  50203
$21.95

This Beronia is a delicious blend led by the wonderful Spanish black grape called Tempranillo; the primary grape of the Rioja region. Full-bodied and brooding like the expression of a matador lurking in the shadows, it tastes of black cherries, blackberry, black pepper and smoke.

Beronia also has two other even more price conscious siblings worth checking out, but we’ll get to them in the future. So much wine, so little time.

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La Chablisienne Les Vénérables Vieilles Vignes Chablis
Burgundy, France
750 mL  bottle VINTAGES#:  215525
$27.95

Since in this issue we’re remembering France’s great triumph over Phylloxera, I couldn’t resist pulling out a bottle from France’s great Burgundy region. Granted, La Chablisienne is a tad less affordable but it’s a whole lot of beautiful. And with what we’ve been going through, we deserve it, damn it!

La Chablisienne is a Chablis produced from old vines so it’s more concentrated with flavour. It comes from the most northern part of Burgundy where the cool climate produces Chardonnay grapes with more acidity and less fruitiness.

That said, Chablis and certainly La Chablisienne gives you a purity of aroma and taste that is second to none. I’ve loved this wine for years and it always rewards me for coming back to it.

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Porcupine Ridge Syrah
Coastal Region, South Africa
750 mL  bottle VINTAGES#:  595280
$15.95

For our under the radar choice this month, we’re going to a country that is hiding in plain sight; South Africa. Porcupine Ridge Syrah comes to us from the Boekenhoutskloof Winery.  That’s a mouthful. As is this Syrah.

It’s medium-bodied and earthy with smokiness and pepper and hints of espresso. Perhaps, this Syrah isn’t as robust as its Australian cousin Shiraz, but for sure it’s a food-friendly Porcupine that loves to cuddle up with a grilled hamburger or a sirloin.

That brings us to the end of our visit down here in the cellar. But before we leave the old tasting table and go our separate ways for another month of crafts, bread-baking, and Zoom-togethers, let’s have some wine and remember a song that was way ahead of its time when released in 1985. The artist was the great Aretha Franklin. The song, ‘Who’s Zooming Who’.

See you in June. Until then, let’s keep all our courageous and dedicated health care providers and first-responders in our hearts.

And as always keep your glass of wine close, and your friends even closer. But for now, keep them at least a hockey stick away.

Jim

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