Phylloxera. Perhaps no other word strikes as much fear into the hearts of wine producers. The tiny insect that feeds on vine roots and eventually kills the vines was responsible for the widespread devastation of France's vineyards in the 1800s, and recently caused many California wineries to replant their vineyards.
In Chile, phylloxera has yet to rear its ugly head. Nonetheless, wine giant Concha y Toro is planning ahead for the pest. The winery, Chile's largest exporter, has announced plans to work with France's Mercier vine nursery to develop phylloxera-resistant vines.
Mercier, France's largest vine nursery, counts Bordeaux châteaus Ausone, Cheval-Blanc and Mouton-Rothschild among its clients. It currently owns more than 740 acres of nurseries and land for vine propagation, and produces 34 million vines per year.
"I have not heard of the presence of phylloxera in Chile," said Andrés Larraín, agricultural manager for Concha y Toro. "Our natural barriers and a government policy regarding control of entry of material from abroad has allowed us to remain isolated from potential diseases. However, nobody can give us a lifetime guarantee that our vineyards will always remain intact from facing potential damage."
In places such as France and California, vintners have dealt with phylloxera by grafting their vines onto rootstocks that are supposed to be resistant to the insect. (The European grapes varieties used for fine wine are susceptible to the pest, but native American varieties had developed immunity through natural selection.)
Concha y Toro wants to eventually develop clones from first-generation grafted rootstocks for use in its vineyards, as most of its vines are currently planted on their own natural roots, which would not be resistant to phylloxera. Concha y Toro started planting grafted vines last year. It does not plan to replant its top vineyards, such as Puente Alto, which supplies the fruit for its Viña Almaviva and Don Melchor wines.
"The excellent quality of these wines is due to the perfect relationship between the grapes and the climate and soil of that single vineyard," said Enrique Tirado, winemaker for Almaviva. "One of the key factors of this perfect relationship is the maturity the vineyards have reached over the years. Therefore, our single vineyards, which are producing the greatest wines, will be preserved and taken care of as the most valuable asset in the company."
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