When the topic of Texas wine occurs outside of the Long Star State, it’s often met with looks of skepticism. But did you know that the European wine industry owes a massive debt to the pioneering spirit of one of our residents?
The Phylloxera Epidemic
The “Great Wine Blight” of the late 19th century ravaged wine crops across Europe, most notably in France. The cause? A North American vine louse (known as Phylloxera vastatrix) that was identified in France in 1863. Though vine grafting had occurred for years between Europe and the Americas, many experts believe that faster journeys (via steamship) ensured that pests survived in greater numbers.
Between the 1850s and 1870s, it’s thought that approximately 6 million acres of French vineyards were destroyed.
Finding a Vine Grafting Solution in the Americas
Agriculturalists determined that grapevine root systems were crawling with parasitic vine lice – and no amount of chemicals or pesticides worked. After 5 years of testing and correspondence with biologists and viticulturists, European vineyard owners were encouraged to graft their plants with American rootstock (which touch both the soil and the phylloxera louse).
Simply put, viticulturists took American vine rootstock and grafted it onto a European grapevine (ie. Vitis vinifera). All European varieties of grapes like grenache, pinot, cabernet, and chardonnay are Vitis vinifera.
At the time, Vitis riparia was the only American rootstock available. However, nearly half of France’s soil has a pH level that is a poor match for this species. Planting Vitis rupestris was another failure. Wine growers were facing a desperate situation and needed a solution.
Thomas Volney Munson: The Father of Texas Wines
Thomas Volney (“TV”) Munson was an ardent horticulturalist who stated that the grape was, “the most beautiful, most wholesome and nutritious, most certain and profitable fruit that can be grown.”
While living in Nebraska, Munson noted that while European varieties struggled under weather extremes and pests, indigenous varieties thrived. This spurred his interest in hybridizing grape varieties in an attempt to improve their survival.
After moving to Texas in 1876, Munson threw himself into grape research. After exploring North America’s biodiversity, he was the first person to present a complete herbarium of all known American grape species, introducing 300 that had never been recorded. Due to his incredible work, international botanists used his meticulous research to find a solution to the vine louse.
The Texas Vine System
While watching France’s desperate situation, Munson theorized that native Texan grapes might be able to work.
In 1888, a delegation (including botanist Pierre Viala) was sent directly to the United States to find a solution. After winding his way west, Viala discovered that, indeed, Munson’s Texan rootstock grew well in calcareous soil that was similar to that found in the Champagne and Cognac regions.
Many of Munson’s rootstocks were grafted with phyolloxera-resistant varieties created by Swiss-American viticulturist Hermann Jaeger.
Vitis berlandieri was indigenous to Texas, had a higher tolerance to different climates, grew best in alkaline soil, and was naturally resistant to Phylloxera vastatrix. When the Vitis berlandieri was paired with Vinifera, it didn’t necessarily lead to a great wine. The perfect combination came when it was spliced with the Vitis vinifera grape (still referred to as 41B rootstock).
Grafting European vines to American rootstock was laborious, but many of the vineyards that adapted to this technique were able to rebound in time. This hybrid rootstock helped save the European wine industry and Munson received the Legion of Honor for his achievements. Today, the majority of vines are grafted onto American rootstock.
Raise a Glass to Texas Wine
Not only did Texas directly help the European wine industry, but our terrain and terroir are also responsible for some incredible wines. Discover more about our mission to bring Texas wine into the forefront – where it belongs.