The history of phylloxera, a bug that attacks the roots of European grapevines, seems a universal one, in that it quickly spread and destroyed huge swaths of vineyards starting in the mid-1800s. Henri Desplanques, in his book Campagne umbre, makes a brief comment on phylloxera and its late arrival in Umbria. The pest was first noticed in Perugia in 1891, then reached Gubbio by 1899, but did not spread further. It reappeared in 1916 on the shores of Lago Trasimeno and only in 1933 reached Perugia again, as well as Foligno and Montefalco. Why the late arrival and slow spread?
The reason was the “backwardness” of Umbrian agriculture, which until the 1960s (as Desplanques clearly shows in his encyclopedic study) was characterized by a regime known as coltura promiscua, which we have chosen to translate as “mixed farming.” This agricultural system was not based on plots of land dedicated to monoculture; rather, fields had widely-spaced rows of “support trees” which provided a structure on which grapevines could grow, in addition to providing leaves for fodder for animals. Interspersed between the trees and the vines were grains and vegetable plots. The roots of the grapevines in this system were stronger than those closely-spaced vines in monoculture vineyards, and their distance from each other made transmission less likely. In addition the absence of vines from other areas impeded the spread of the disease. Even as late as the mid-1960s many of Umbria’s grapevines had not yet been attacked by phylloxera. (See our other posts on phylloxera.) ZNTags: Phylloxera, Mixed Farming