(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)