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Lasting Effects of the Wine Crashes and the Peasant Class

Why You Should Learn the History of French Wine Law - Part II ​


The lasting effects of the wine crashes in the 19th century due to the 4 North American grapevine diseases that destroyed Europe’s vineyards cannot be understated. The most affected group were of course the farmers.

This is part II in our series of 4 posts on ‘Why You Should Learn the History of French Wine Law’.

quick description of the other posts in this series...

Part I

In Part I, we share which 4 diseases destroyed Europe’s vineyards; how they arrived, what they do to grapevines, and the known ways to mitigate their effects. We discuss the intense changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution and witness the rise of the middle classes.

Then, just as wine purchasing is at its all time highest, massive crop failures occur in the three largest wine producing nations.

Part II

In this post (Part II), we’ll see how peasants of this time experience the destruction of their vineyards from new vine diseases. Soon, we’ll gain an understanding of what farming looked like in the 19th century.

We’ll explain what the farmer saw when the famous phylloxera louse attacked for the first time. We’ll also discuss how they responded and the development of the first French hybrid grape varieties.

Photo Mihail Marcri from Unsplash
Photo Mihail Marcri from Unsplash

Part III

Next in Part III, we’ll see how the wine merchants, the government and the farmers all played a role in causing grape prices to hit rock bottom. As farmers revolt across the land, the French government is forced to create new wine laws to combat fraud and protect the livelihoods of its citizens. Through this journey, you’ll understand why wine laws are necessary.

The peasant class

At the time of the Industrial Revolution, most peasants are share-croppers: that is, part owner and part labourer.

But it hadn’t always been this way. The forefathers of these peasants were part of a feudal system. They did not own the land, but traded use of the land with their labour. During the French Revolution of 1789, the peasants revolted to overthrow the ‘Ancien Régime’ that had been in place for centuries. During this time, they claimed the land as their own.

And although the land was now theirs, they remained deeply distrustful of authorities.

Do you remember what happened when the government sent in teams to spray the famous vineyards in Burgundy to protect them from phylloxera?? Lynch mobs attacked them. They had no trust that government leaders would help them. [You can read this in Part I, How 4 North American Grapevine Diseases Destroyed Vineyards in Europe.

Yet farms of the 19th century held some resemblance to those of the 18th century. Perhaps not in ownership, but certainly in design.

Vineyards of Saint Emilion Bordeaux by samael334 iStock scaled
Bordeaux vines in the 19th century. Only in Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy would you see large areas devoted to vines. Most farmers of Europe were part of a polycrop system. iStock photo Credit: samael334

polycrop farming...

Most farmers would plant fields interchangeably: a few rows of vegetables, a few of cereals, perhaps some corn and then a few vines. This is called a ‘polycrop’ system. Polycrop farming was the predominant system throughout all of Europe at this time.

But there are some rare exceptions to the polycrop system in the 19th century. The prices fetched for grapes and wine from the famous vineyards of Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy make it economically foolish to plant anything else. Here, only grapevines would be seen. Again, these were the exceptions.


Most farmers instead would produce first what they needed to feed themselves and that meant planting a variety of seeds. Whatever was left over, they would  bring to market. In other words, they were not market oriented and were completely resistant to the idea of choosing one crop over another.

wine storage in the 19th century didn't exist for most...

Keep in mind that wine made at this time wouldn’t last long. Indeed, if there was any stock leftover, the farmer would likely throw it out to make room for the fresher, more valuable wine from the current year. In the 19th century, only Champagne and the very top estates of Bordeaux had large storage facilities for wine.

how much of yearly income was lost by farmers...

Today it is difficult to know how the loss of grapevines truly affected the peasant class.

Most of the wine they made every year would likely be considered surplus for sale to others and only a little would be kept for drinking for themselves. But how much of the yearly income of the peasantry was lost is not known even though records were kept and still exist today.


By foto phanatic unsplash scaled
By foto phanatic unsplash scaled

That’s because the peasant class were deeply distrustful of authorities. They would not proclaim accurate records of their sales, lest they be taxed more on their meager earnings.

Still, we can assume that whatever earnings were lost, they were indeed not what this group could afford.

What it looks like when phylloxera attacks ...

Haut Languedoc by Alasdair Massie CC By NC SA 2.0
Old bush vines in the Gard, Languedoc, France. This is one of the first places where Phylloxera was discovered in France leading to one of 4 wine crashes.

And when phylloxera attacked, that one vine disease destroyed 40% of France’s vineyards in 15 years!

It was first noticed in France in the Southern Rhône.

A farmer tending his crops notices that a vine or two, probably in the middle of the vineyard, was starting to get sick. It’s leaves were yellowing. Perhaps he thought that he would simply need to leave the grapes hanging longer on this plant before picking.

Yellowing leaves, whatever the cause, often means ripening will be delayed and the grapes will need to be left longer on the vine for the sugars to form.



Indeed, at this point, there would seem to be no need for a sense of alarm. The farmer would shrug, and move on with the rest of the work that lay before him.

Soon, however, the leaves would turn red and start dropping. Without the leaves, photosynthesis cannot happen and sugars cannot be created in the grapes at all.

But now, leaves from other vines would be yellowing too. Worry would set in. The disease is spreading, and rapidly so.

By the second year, the disease has now spread to his neighbour.

By year 3, the plants would be dead.

While digging up the roots, the farmer would notice that all external tissues of the root were black and rotting.

With whatever grapes the farmer could pull off of these vines, the resultant wine would have no aroma, they would taste watery, and finish with a note of battery acid.

SFD  Phylloxera in Washington credit Yevhenii Orlov iStock 22520x1420 scaled
Originally called Phylloxera Vastatrix or the 'Devastator', Phylloxera first attacks the roots where it is unseen by the human eye. Later these galls form on a grapeleaf. Phylloxera causes one of 4 wine crashes in the 19th century. iStock image Credit: Yevhenii Orlov.

The creation of French hybrids...

As scourge after scourge sweeps through Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, farmers begin to realize that planting their native vitis vinifera (European) varieties was futile. Desperate for grapes to make wine, vine growers eventually begin to plant hybrid vines.

Hybrids are made by cross breeding different species of grapevines together. In this case, a European species and an American species would be crossed in a nursery by a vine breeder. The resultant vines will in theory have a better natural resistance to the new diseases brought from the New World. However, grapevines are just like humans; you never know which traits the children will pick up from the parent’s until they grow up and display them. One child may have red hair, one may have brown and the third may have tight curls.

And hybrids certainly won’t make high quality wine – at least they didn’t in the 19th century when they first began to cross them.

To make high quality wines and to get resistance to the diseases they are combatting, breeders need time. They have to plant out the results and select the best vines from them to then cross with another. Vine breeding can take generations to perfect. In the 19th century, when 4 North American Grapevine Diseases Destroyed Europe’s Vineyards one after another over a period of 40 years, time was what they didn’t have.

In fact, EU law stipulates that you cannot produce wine from vines that are less than 4 years old. Even without the law, vines don’t really produce grapes before year 3 anyway.

Therefore, planting hybrid grapevines was not an immediate remedy. The wines that they produced weren’t so great either. Not only did this produce severe disappointment, but it also lowered the price one could fetch for their grapes further intensifying the effects of the wine crash.

But hybrids do produce large yields of grapes. During shortages, the high yields were welcomed.

Photo by Boudewijn Bo Boer Carcassonne OccitaneFR unsplash scaled
Vines in Carcassonne, Occitanie, France. Photo from Unsplash Credit: Boudewijn Bo Boer

The lasting effect of the wine crashes: French hybrid vines...

Today, French hybrids are still known for their winter hardiness as well as their ability for disease and pest resistance and for making high yields. Fortunately now, they also are capable of making good wine.

The French hybrids created first during the 19th century will improve over the decades and become the main grapes planted in Eastern Canada and the Eastern and Mid-Western United States. And although they can make good wine, hybrids still suffer from the poor image they got from the 19th century when they were first developed.

Finding the cure for phylloxera...

It would take years of local commitees working with national governments and international exchanges with the scientific community to come up with cures. For a while, it seemed that the very existence of the French wine industry was threatened.

The French government went so far as to offer a prize of 300,000 francs to the person who found the cure for Phylloxera.

And in 1873, they found it!

Native American rootstocks form a natural resistance to Phylloxera. When the louse bites into the roots, it forms a scab over the wound preventing the vine from dying.

The scientists found that by taking a French scion, or top part of a grapevine, they could graft it onto an American rootstock. The rootstock is bottom part of the vine. Et voila! You have resistance to the pest and still a high quality wine can be made using grapes of the European grapevine.

This solution however, didn’t come without its problems. The first American rootstocks they use did not work in the limestone-rich soils of France. Scientists finally discover V. Berlandieri American rootstocks are able to survive lime rich soils.

Furthermore, there is the problem of the sheer amount of vines that needed American rootstocks to be grafted to.


Lasting effects of the wine crashes: migration ...

The lasting effects of the wine crashes and the damaging effects of the destruction of France’s vineyards would have ripple effects that would last to the present time. Many peasants simply abandon their fields and move to the overcrowded cities; many immigrated to America or Algeria.

In France, large numbers of vineyards are never replanted. Others, are replanted with new varieties, but that is a topic for another post.

But not all of the effects are bad.

In Algeria, French vignerons and winemakers bring their expertise and skills and help to create a burgeoning wine scene there; one that would become the largest economic sector of the Algerian economy until its independence from France in the 1960’s.


Le Monde Illustre fake wines
Le Monde illustré n° 674, 1870, the administration pours fake wines seized in the Entrepôts de Paris into the Seine. The Lasting Effects of the Wine Crashes. Image Public Domaine in Wikimedia Scan book JPS68 via photoshop

The lasting effects of the wine crashes with the creation of French Wine Laws to combat wine fraud...

Yet perhaps the most damaging effect of the wine crashes would be the unprecedented rise of wine fraud.

A thriving industry springs up in the Mediterranean in the 1870’s and 1880’s of making wine from imported raisins. In Bordeaux, Le Mondé Illustrée reports barrels upon barrels of fraudulent wine that is ‘made of unknown ingredients’. The authorities confiscate it and dump it into La Garonne in 1870.

Today, we may take it for granted that wine is made from fermented grapes. But history is filled with exceptions to this rule.

As a result, France creates its first legal definition of wine in 1889 so that making wine from anything other than fermented grapes is punishable by law.

Join us for Part III of the History of French Wine Law. As good harvests return to France, grape prices hit rock bottom and farmers riot across the nation. Only this time, they have voting rights and the French government is forced to respond.

Finally, visit us again for Part IV where we lay out the foundations of the French Wine Laws that were developed in response. We’ll show you how to read French wine labels and know the style of wine that’s inside the bottle. We’ll also explain why you can count on France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) or Protegée (AOP) to be a wine of high quality.

And if you want to learn more about wine, visit us here for upcoming wine courses.

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“Cooperation and Conflicts: Institutional Innovation in France’s Wine Markets, 1870-1911” by James Simpson. In The Business History Review Vol. 79, No. 3 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 527-558. Published by the President and Fellows of Harvard and found on

Grape Phylloxera Pest Management Program for Grape Series” by Todd Leuty for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs of Ontario.

“The Great French Wine Blight” by Pat Montague and published in Wine Tidings No. 96, July/August, 1986.

“The Red & the White. The History of Wine in France and Italy in the Nineteenth Century”. Leo A. Loubère

“The Oxford Companion to Wine” Edited by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding. Oxford University Press, 2015. Entries on “Adulteration and Fraud”, “Algeria”, “Phylloxera”

“Revolt of the Languedoc Winegrowers” in Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on July 17, 2020.

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