1887: a viticultural mission to America to save French vineyards

Almost one hundred and fifty years ago, in the midst of the phylloxera crisis, Pierre Viala identified a new species of vine across the Atlantic, Vitis berlandieri, which helped save the French vineyards from certain death.


Pierre Viala was born in Lavérune in southern France in 1859, and became an Academician in 1888. Two years earlier, he had been elected professor at the new Chair of General Viticulture in Montpellier. At the end of the 19th century, Montpellier was at the forefront of the study of phylloxera, and Pierre Viala had just published a work on vine diseases that made him famous.

In 1863, phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae) is introduced into France with wood from American vines imported to test their suitability for the national vineyards. This aphid, whose ravages are initially detected in the Gard region of France in 1867, gradually spreads throughout the country: vineyards wither away because French grape varieties belonging to the Vitis vinifera species are highly susceptible.

The phytosanitary treatments tested at the time prove ineffective against this new scourge. The idea of grafting French grape varieties onto rootstocks from phylloxera-resistant American vines is thus born.

As early as 1873, two agronomists, Georges Couderc and Emile Planchon, embark on creating rootstocks by hybridizing American vines resistant to the pest. But the first rootstocks created to improve compatibility with French grape varieties are not suited to chalky soil.

In 1887, P. Viala is then commissioned by the French Ministry of Agriculture to head to the United Statesfor six months in order to source new, vigorous American vines that are resistant to endemic phylloxera and grow in chalky soil.

His prospecting work in North America [1] proves laborious, and it is ultimately in North Texas, toward the end of his trip, that he identifies the species Vitis Berlandieri, a vine that is both vigorous and thrives on chalky soils similar to those found in the Charentes region.

 [1] Itinerary shown on map: Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, District of Columbia, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Indian Territory, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas and California.

On his return, he draws up an exhaustive description of all the species found in America (published in 1889), and in particular of V. Berlandieri, which withstands phylloxera and is suited to French limestone soil. Its success has considerable consequences for the reconstitution of all the French vineyards: among the interspecific hybrids of V. Berlandieri authorised for cultivation in France, the two rootstocks SO4 and 110R are used in much of today's vineyards. Research has recently been relaunched to gain a better understanding of this important species.

The species V. berlandieri

Descriptive summary of V. berlandieri

Stump: vigorous and with a climbing habit, average stem, one-year-old wood angled, dull with floccule of woolly, greyish-brown hairs; tendrils intermittent.

Young leaves: glossy, russet-green, with brown hairs; adult: medium-sized, as broad as long, with a rounded pentagonal shape, almost entirely; petiolar sinus deep, with converging lobes; scarcely toothed; thick blade, broadly textured; upper surface dark green and shiny, lower surface lighter green, with prominent veins, lined with short hairs.

Bunch medium-sized, tightly packed, with small, very firm, spherical, plum-coloured and black berries.

Seeds medium-sized and compact; beaks strong and short; chalaza rounded, not very prominent, tapering to a not very prominent raphe.


The species V. berlandieri : Unpublished and complete description of stumps, shoots, buds, leaves, fruits, seeds and flowering. Viala, P. (1889). Une mission viticole en Amérique (A viticultural mission to America. In French).

Description of the seeds of several vine species. See the vine seed of the species V. Berlandieri (number 14 in the illustration). Viala, P. (1889). Une mission viticole en Amérique. (A viticultural mission to America. In French).

Description of the shoots of several vine species. See the shoots of the species V. Berlandieri (number 2 in the illustration). Viala, P. (1889). Une mission viticole en Amérique. (A viticultural mission to America. In French).

And today at INRAE?

On the INRAE website:

See more:

  • Porte-Greffe Infos (in French):  a website to facilitate exchanges, work on databases and consultation of information acquired on rootstocks..

Text written by Olivier Dupré (INRAE, DipSO).

Thanks to Nathalie Ollat (EGFV Bordeaux) and Marie-Hélène Simard (IRHS Angers) for their proofreading.

How to cite: Focus Agate: 1887:a viticultural mission to America to save French vineyards, Olivier Dupré (INRAE-DIPSO), june 2024, https://agate.inrae.fr/agate/fr/content/focus

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