While the Sidecar is really no stranger to the cocktail world, this particular variety is truly a vintage cocktail. This cocktail can (as far as I know) only be enjoyed at the birthplace of the Sidecar, the Hotel Ritz in Paris. What makes this cocktail unique is that is uses an extremely rare Ritz Reserve Cognac, produced from pre-phylloxera grapes. It has said that no wine or brandy produced since the great blight can match the former in taste and complexity.

In the late 19th century the phylloxera epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards for wine grapes in Europe, most notably in France. Phylloxera was introduced to Europe when avid botanists in Victorian England collected specimens of American vines in the 1850s. Because phylloxera is native to North America, the native grape species there are at least partially resistant. By contrast, the European wine grape Vitis vinifera is very susceptible to the insect. The epidemic devastated vineyards in Britain and then moved to the mainland, destroying most of the European wine growing industry. In 1863, the first vines began to deteriorate inexplicably in the southern Rhône region of France. The problem spread rapidly across the continent. In France alone, total wine production fell from 84.5 million hectolitres in 1875 to only 23.4 million hectolitres in 1889. Some estimates hold that between two-thirds and nine-tenths of all European vineyards were destroyed.

In France, one of the desperate measures of grape growers was to bury a live toad under each vine to draw out the “poison”. Areas with soils composed principally of sand or schist were spared, and the spread was slowed in dry climates, but gradually the aphid spread across the continent. A significant amount of research was devoted to finding a solution to the phylloxera problem, and two major solutions gradually emerged: grafting cuttings onto resistant rootstocks and hybridization.

Use of a resistant, or tolerant, rootstock, developed by Charles Valentine Riley in collaboration with J. E. Planchon and promoted by T. V. Munson, involved grafting a Vitis vinifera scion onto the roots of a resistant Vitis aestivalis or other American native species. This is the preferred method today, because the rootstock does not interfere with the development of the wine grapes, and it furthermore allows the customization of the rootstock to soil and weather conditions, as well as desired vigor. Unfortunately not all rootstocks are equally resistant. Between the 1960s and the 1980s in California, many growers used a rootstock called AxR1. Even though it had already failed in many parts of the world by the early twentieth century, it was thought to be resistant by growers in California. Although phylloxera initially did not feed heavily on AxR1 roots, within twenty years, mutation and selective pressures within the phylloxera population began to overcome this rootstock, resulting in the eventual failure of most vineyards planted on AxR1. The replanting of afflicted vineyards continues today. Many have suggested that this failure was predictable, as one parent of AxR1 is in fact a susceptible V. vinifera cultivar. But the transmission of phylloxera tolerance is more complex, as is demonstrated by the continued success of 41B, an F1 hybrid of Vitis berlandieri and Vitis vinifera. The full story of the planting of AxR1 in California, its recommendation, the warnings, financial consequences, and subsequent recriminations remains to be told. Modern phylloxera infestation also occurs when wineries are in need of fruit immediately, and choose to plant ungrafted vines rather than wait for grafted vines to be available.

The use of resistant American rootstock to guard against phylloxera also brought about a debate that remains unsettled to this day: whether self-rooted vines produce better wine than those that are grafted. Of course, the argument is essentially irrelevant wherever phylloxera exists. Had American rootstock not been available and used, there would be no V. vinifera wine industry in Europe or most places other than Chile, Washington State, and most of Australia. Cyprus avoided the phylloxera plague, and thus its wine stock has not been grafted for phylloxera resistant purposes.

If all else fails and you aren’t in Paris and can’t afford the $500+ price tag for the drink, any old good quality Cognac will suffice.

The Ritz Sidecar
5 parts Cognac
3 parts Cointreau
2 parts Lemon Juice

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