We all know that the history books are written by the victors. But in viticultural history, no one much pays attention at all. Most stories in that arena are the stuff of lore and legend anyway, so who is really paying attention to the facts?
I, for one; and you, for two.
Back in the mid-1800s, a root louse, indigenous to the Americas, made its way across the Atlantic to France, transported in vine stock from the New World. The American vines were immune to its predatory nature. When the phylloxera bugs bit the roots and feasted on the sap, the American roots scabbed over and healed.
Not so for the European Vitis vinifera. The European grapevines lacked the ability to scab over, leaving bite wounds open to attack by bacteria and fungus.
Moreover, Vitis vinifera formed galls, knots of uncontrolled cell growth, wherever the bugs bit. These strangled the vine in the long run, and the vineyards of Europe were decimated.
Fortunately, someone of the ingenious persuasion concocted the idea of grafting the phylloxera-immune American rootstocks onto the European vine stock.
Yes, we still have grapes (and wines) like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot grigio, pinot noir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah, all native to France (save riesling), thanks to the technique of grafting those precious vine stocks onto American roots. An industry was saved, but things have changed in a very significant but subtle way.
As the vine pulls water from the soil, it pulls potassium and other minerals along with it. Potassium is quite important to cardiac health. The more water the vine absorbs, the more potassium the vine absorbs.
This mineral is transferred from soil to grape and from grape to wine, giving wine a heart-healthy boost.
Unfortunately, grapevines grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks resist potassium uptake — and most of the world grows grapes on grafted grapevines — except those grown in Chile and Australia, for the most part. There are also pockets of remote phylloxera-free areas in sandy Washington state and Greece.
The sandy soils of Chile and Australia, both island nations for different reasons, have largely remained planted to un-grafted grape vines.
Chile, of course, is part of the South American continent, but to the north is the Atacama Desert, an inhospitable place the locals claim hasn't seen rain for 100 years. To the east are the Andes, to the south is Antarctica and to the west is the Pacific Ocean.
It's an island of sorts: isolated; protected from contagion; and the soils are sandy — something in which phylloxera doesn't thive.
Then there's Australia, an Alcatraz on an epic scale — and the soils are sandy.
Then there are those Roaring Forties: winds that whip around the relatively continent-free Southern Hemisphere, picking up potassium-rich sea salts, and depositing them upon the main lands of South America and Australia.
So the soils are potassium-rich, and un-grafted grapevines don't block that absorption.
It doesn't take a kindergartner to connect the dots.
Did you know that doctors Penfold and Lindeman established wineries in Australia to create "heart tonics"?