The History of Vines in the Cévennes
text : Pierre Galet
...............Over the course of the 19 th century, the tradition of vine cultivation in the Cévennes region was radically changed by the accidental introduction of disease and parasites originating from the United States . These changes were, on the one hand, qualitative; certain traditional vine varieties were abandoned in favor of more or less disease-immune American hybrid varieties, and on the other hand quantitative; the region saw the near total destruction of the “old” vineyard, built upon local French varieties, and the partial-birth of a “new” vineyard, which called for either higher-performing French varieties or Franco-American (or Americano-American) hybrid varieties.
The beginning of the century saw new ideas propagated by revolution, the creation of encyclopedias, and participation from French volunteers in the American War for Independence – all of which brought attention to east coast American vine varieties. It was Michaux, Director of the Museum of Natural History in Paris who, in 1803, edited the first edition of Flora of North America , in which he described several species of vines including V. riparia, V. cordiflora, V. aestivalis, V. rubas and V. rotundifolia . Oïdium was the first disease to arrive in the Gard region and the European continent as a whole. Heavy losses were first seen in 1853 and 1854, during which years the harvest suffered by 50% (641,000 hectoliters in 1855 versus 1,286,000 hls in 1851).
To combat the disease, winegrowers began importing resistant American varieties like Isabelle and Concord . However, in doing so they had, unbeknownst to them, introduced yet another redoubtable, but as of yet unidentified, parasite – Phylloxera – early signs of which were seen in Pujaut, near Roquemaure, in 1863. It was only on July 15, 1868 that an investigation committee overseen by Planchon, Bazille and Sahaut was able to identify the culprit, an aphid Planchon named Phylloxera Vastarix.
In just a few short years, the entire département was ravaged, and in 1862 there remained only 17,409 vines, the equivalent of 3,442 hectares of French vine land, for a production yielding 378,552 hls. Certain vineyards close to the Rhone attempted to fight the disease by submerging the vines during the winter months, having an unlimited water supply at their disposal, cultivating the vines, such as at Aigues-Mortes, along the sandy shores, thus keeping the disease at bay, or by treating the vines with carbonic sulfur. By 1878, when the entire Gard département had been declared “phyllorexic,” the use of American varieties was finally authorized.
Le milidou or brown rot made its first appearance in the département in the vineyard at Aigues-Mortes in 1880, quickly causing notable losses in the Cévennes, a humid region offering ideal conditions for the development and spread of the fungus. This latest phenomenon merely contributed to the intensified cultivation of the Hybrids.
In 1958 in the Gard, of the 89,807 hectares of cultivatable vine land 20,000 (22.8%) were dedicated to the cultivation of Hybrids, whereas in the Cévennes this percentage was much higher due to frequent springtime frosts and abundant rainfall – conditions in which disease could develop and thrive. The descendants of V. labrusca (Isabelle, Concord , Clinton , Othello (red) and Noah (white)), a variety known for its unique raspberry flavor, had become widespread. Jacquez and Herbemont, both descendants of V. aestivalis , were likewise being cultivated. These rustic varieties, requiring little to no treatment, had won the favor of small farmers and individuals who sought to produce just enough for their personal consumption. Yet, the law of December 24, 1934 had listed them among the “banned varieties” and now prohibited them even for individual use. In spite of these legal measures, the banned varieties continued to be maintained and cultivated for many years to follow. Today in the Cévennes there remain a handful of isolated arbors of Jacquez and Clinton, but on the whole the cultivation of Hybrids continues to decline; there now remain less than 1,500 hectares of the vines in the entire department , and those vines torn up long ago were seldom replaced, leading to the impressive 20,000 hectare reduction in the cultivation of these vine varieties.
Agricultural engineer, Doctor of Sciences, Mâitre Assistant of Viticulture at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Agronomique of Montpellier
President of the Centre de Pomologie at La Mazière