July 20, 2008

The President and The Bug [ROOTS 3]

(Third in a series)

Thomas Jefferson was one of the earliest adopters of the idea that the New World could produce great wines. To achieve agricultural self-sufficiency, not to mention political independence, a homegrown wine industry was an imperative. Jefferson planted vines years before his famous declaration, encouraging an Italian immigrant, Filippo Mazzei, to plant European varietals on donated Monticello acreage. But the vines didn't take.

Probably because of a
tiny bug native to North America who feeds at the roots of grape vines. An aphid-esque, sap-sucking insect, Daktulosphaira vitifoliae. Otherwise known as Phylloxera vastatrix, "the dry leaf devastator." Sounds like something you'd need a cape and a bite from a radioactive spider to take on.

In the
early 1860s, almost a century after Jefferson's failed experiments in New World viticulture, Phylloxera was inadvertently introduced to the Old World. A no doubt villainous Monsieur Borty of Roquemaure in the Côtes du Rhône (ironically, this is also the place where the French classification system for wine, AOC, was born) is held to blame. Within just a few years, the little yellow pest had devastated vineyards from Portugal to the Crimea, conquering Europe faster than Julius Caesar.

To the
rescue came a French botanist and an American entomologist. They saved the day, not to mention the European wine industry, by grafting European grapes (Vitis vinifera) to the Phylloxera resistant roots of American vines (Vitis labrusca).

And there -- the pun is inevitable -- lies the root of our problem.

The first vintages of grafted wines were deemed "undrinkable," perhaps even imbuvable in some quarters. At the time, there were many who believed the wines of Jefferson's cherished Bordeaux would never regain their pre-bug quality. There are some who persist in this belief today.

So to really drink like Jefferson, we must map a return to that
Age d'Or of pre-Phylloxera wines. Which leaves us two choices: 1. Spend vast sums buying old vinegar at auction. 2. Find wines made from grapes grown on ungrafted, or own-rooted, vines. But how to find such fabled vines?

Fortunately, Keith Levenberg, a true connoisseur (there is no single name that shows up on more pages of CellarTracker
tasting notes I visit than Levenberg's; I often feel I'm walking in his winey footsteps; does that count as stalking?) and the author of the highly erudite, always clever and often times funny Picky Eater, has sourced a list (scroll down) of wines made from ungrafted vines. Which cuts us quickly to our end.

"So now can we drink?"

Almost, grasshopper. A little more patience.

(vines image:
© Willyvend | Dreamstime.com)


Keith Levenberg said...

Thank you for the kind words! Just found your blog through this and will have a blast going through your old posts as well as this fascinating series tonight.

Some time ago when I read James Gabler's book on Jefferson's wine travels I thought it would be cool to put together a Jefferson-themed wine dinner, but I gave up on the idea because it seemed all the wines must have changed so much it wouldn't show us what it was supposed to. I'll look forward to reading how you wiggle out of that dilemma....

J David Harden said...

We're hoping to exploit a vague calculus, circle around the center with hopes of approaching a loose clarity regarding an unknowable target.

Or something like that.