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The latter part of the 19th century witnessed an ecological disaster on an epic scale, resulting in the near-collapse of the French wine industry. The culprit was a parasitic aphid named Phylloxera vastatrix (dry-leaf devastator) which was responsible for the destruction of one million hectares of French vineyards.

This extraordinary event has now been painstakingly researched by Christy Campbell in his book Phylloxera, and the story is delivered with the pace and entertainment of a detective thriller. It starts innocuously enough, with the 19th-century passion for collecting all things exotic and importing botanical specimens from around the globe.

The tale began in the 1860s, when a French wine merchant unknowingly planted a batch of imported American vines in his garden in the Southern Rhone. The roots carried a tiny destructive aphid which, within a few years, had infected the area. By 1875, it had spread into the Midi, with a secondary source blighting Bordeaux, and some 20 years later, had affected the entire French vineyard area.

The march of the pest was remorseless and unstoppable, but making the connection between the vine disease and the vine louse, and then tracing its origin to North America was a remarkable piece of detection. Phylloxera attacks the vine by feeding off its rootsap, eventually killing its host, but it took many years of field study to understand its complex life-cycle, and why the native European vine, Vitis vinifera was defenceless.

Such was the gravity of the situation, that the French government offered a reward of 300,000 gold francs, but the solution proved elusive, and divided opinion between the ' Sulphuristes' and the ' Americainistes'. The former advocated the use of chemicals, but this was ruinously expensive and ineffectual.

The alternate school proposed the introduction of American vines, whose rootstock could tolerate the louse.

Initially, this course of action faced massive hostility because they made an inferior wine with an unpleasant 'foxy' taste. Nevertheless, by grafting the European vine onto American rootstock, a biological compromise was achieved and taint-free wine produced. Thus, by the turn of the century, the wine industry had been saved, but the face of winemaking had been irrevocably changed.

Phylloxera by Christy Campbell, pounds 8.99 Harper Perennial The publishing house Flammarion have recently produced two sumptuous volumes entitled Bordeaux Chateaux (pounds 30) and 4000 Champagnes (pounds 40). The latter, by Richard Juhlin, Sweden's leadingauthority represents a complete review of Champagne, including the villages, styles and vintages. The major part is a personal set of tasting notes on some 4,000 Champagnes from the leading houses and producers. It is very thorough, if at times a touch self-indulgent. The same cannot be said of Bordeaux Chateaux, a history of the Grand Cru ClassAs. Published to coincide with the 1855 Classification's 150th anniversary, it is all the more remarkable that this ranking of the top Bordeaux estates has proved to be so durable.

Although a worthy idea and attractive to look at, the bulk of the volume is a potted biography of each of the classed Chateau. Unfortunately, the translation from the original French is awkward, but worse still, it indulges in the worst kind of Franco-flannel, using a great deal of verbiage to say very little Noble Rot is a benign fungus that causes grapes to shrivel and enables the production of the most luscious dessert wines. It is also the title of an enthralling book on the subject of Bordeaux Wine.

Written by William Echikson, it follows the 2001 vintage, from the growing season and harvest, right through to the blending and tasting the following spring. At the same time, he provides a fascinating insight into the Bordeaux wine trade, both ancient and modern. Noble Rot is a story about the aristocratic old order from the Left Bank set against the new breed of entrepreneurs and winemakers from the Right Bank. He catalogues bitter rivalries and petty jealousies, infighting and family feuds. It witnesses the break-up of a great estate and the rise of the 'garagistes' whose wines now fetch a higher price than the greatest classed growths. Quite unlike any other book on the subject, this blows the lid off the Bordeaux wine trade. It crackles along like a political potboiler, and I guarantee you'll never look at a bottle of claret again in quite the same way.

Noble Rot by William Echikson (W. W. Norton & Co, pounds 18.99Finally, for serious Scotch lovers, allow me to recommend Andrew Jefford's portrait of Islay and its whiskies.

Recognised as the world's leading whisky island, this is not simply a compendium of the seven distillers currently in production, but an in-depth analysis of the geography and history of this most fascinating location.

The research is painstaking, but the writing is layered and textured. The pages simply resonate with detailed portraits of the whiskies, the characters who produce them, and the landscapes which have fashioned this most precious of beverages. Peat, Smoke and Spirit, Andrew Jefford, pounds 18.99
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 20, 2005
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