In the late 1800s, grape stock prices reached an all-time high, and wine was in short supply. The poor and the middle-class turned to absinthe as a cheaper alternative. Some might even say that the wide spread outbreak of phylloxera and its devastation of the French grape vines is responsible for the success of absinthe….and ultimately it’s criminalization.
Phylloxera was without a doubt the greatest threat to vineyards. Inadvertently imported to England and France on nursery stock between 1854 and 1860, the insects quickly invaded nonresistant Vitis vinifera grape wines throughout Europe. By the end of the 19th century, grape phylloxera had destroyed two-thirds of the vineyards on the continent. When it was discovered, it was called Phylloxera vastatrix – “the devastating louse”.
During the Algier War (1844-1847), the French Army made use of the medical effects of absinthe and provided the soldiers with regular rations of the liquor. When the soldiers return home to France after the war, wine was scarce and expensive due to the devastating effect of phylloxera. The veterans who had survived the war had a taste for absinthe and production had to be increased to keep up with the demand. Absinthe distilleries started to spread all over France like mushrooms.
Grape phylloxera is a tiny aphidlike insect that feeds on Vitis vinifera grape roots, stunting growth of vines or killing them. Grape phylloxera damage the root systems of grapevines by feeding on the root, either on growing rootlets, which then swell and turn yellowish, or on mature hardened roots where the swellings are often hard to see. The majority of grape phylloxera adults are wingless females. They are generally oval shaped, but egg layers are pear shaped. They are small (0.04 inch long and 0.02 inch wide) and vary in color from yellow, yellowish green, olive green, to light brown, brown, or orange. Newly deposited eggs are yellow, oval, and about twice as long as wide. Nymphs resemble adults except they are smaller. The losses suffered in France as a result of the phylloxera invasion in the 1860s was considered being greater than the total cost to the French of the Franco-Prussian war. Over 2000 hectares of vineyard were wiped out in France before the reconstruction on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks began.