France is peppered with wayside crosses. Some are modest and simple, probably made from a single block of stone with a roughly incised date. Some were made for a specific purpose, like the one above. It is a phylloxera cross.
Phylloxera wine blight – more on this below – was a pest whose effects were first noted in France in 1863. The above cross is from 1882 near Saint-Eugène in the commune of Guinals. This was when the pest appeared in the region, starting in the Rhône valley and independently around Bordeaux.
As nothing else seemed to stop its relentless march, some viticulturists turned to religion in a desperate attempt to rid the vines of this plague. Most of our area was under vine at that time, although it is hard to imagine that they produced high-quality wines.
The cross is covered with religious images and inscriptions, notably, “Croix de grace pour nous” (Cross of mercy for us) and the hopeful, “La Condensation du phylloxera so mort son Tombeau” (Judgment on phylloxera – its death, its death. Tomb), illustrated graphically with a pair of crossed bones. The cross is the work of a local mason, F.P. Hebrard, the whose engraved signature can be seen elsewhere in the area. He probably enjoyed the challenge of carving it: more interesting than cutting lintels and cornerstones.
The attack begins
The story of Phylloxera wine blight is long and complicated and I can do no more than give a brief idea of it. I have just finished a fascinating book about this by Christy Campbell (publication details below). In the 19th century, the French wine industry suffered from various biological blights but phylloxera was the most severe. Most of them come from vine stock imported from America. Ironically, salvation came from there too.
The wine merchant of Roquemaure in the Rhône Valley was an unwitting criminal. He planted American grapevines on his small, walled plot in 1862. Since 1863 vines in the area began to die from a mysterious illness. The leaves turn yellow and then brown and the rootstock itself eventually dies. During excavation, nothing but fungal growth was detected in some cases
It was only in 1868 that Jules-Emile Planchon, a botanist, and some colleagues found a mass of small insects feeding on the roots of a healthy vine. Once they’ve done their destructive work, the aphids are gone, so they’re never found on dead vines. Phylloxera vastatrix aphids were eventually proven to be the source of the blight, and scientists mapped their complex life cycle and how they spread. For a long time, though, experts were divided, and some thought insects were an effect, not a cause.
The history of phylloxera blight is one of denial, hotly contested opinions (mostly wrong), farmer obscurity, and early government inertia. All this stuck the search for a solution. Once bugs were accepted as the cause, the French government offered a 30,000-franc reward in 1870—for finding a cure—which increased to 300,000 francs in 1874. It certainly opened the door to charlatanry. Snake oil salesmen have also found a ready market among peasant farmers desperate for a cure.
Apart from being superstitious, crackpot, and downright dishonest, various remedies were tried, most of which failed.
Using toads or birds to ward off invaders. Attempts to introduce an insect predator also failed. At one time, human urine was considered effective and classes of school boys were taken out to urinate on vines. It definitely added a certain je ne sais quoi to the bouquet.
Flood the vineyard in winter drowning bugs. This was partially successful, but only in plains with ready access to abundant water. Some viticulturists tried burning the vines and replacing them with the same stock but the bugs always returned.
Pumping various toxins into the ground, including arsenic. Carbon bisulphide had some success but was expensive and labor intensive and therefore beyond the reach of all but wealthy growers. Nevertheless, many experts favor this solution.
Replaced French vine varieties with American stock, which developed resistance to phylloxera. There was a lot of opposition and people claimed that the wine was ‘foxy’ and undrinkable. In any case, many American grape varieties are not grown on chalky French soil.