The Greatest Ecological Disaster Ever – The Extinction of the American Chestnut

The functional extinction of the American chestnut tree has been called the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world’s forests in all of history. At the beginning of the 20th century there were approximately 4 billion American chestnut trees covering over 200 million acres of woodlands in the eastern USA. By the 1940’s they had all but completely disappeared. A species that had survived every threat for 40 million years was wiped out in 40 years. 

You likely haven’t heard about it though. That’s because the greatest human impact was the decimation of a culture of subsistence farmers in the Appalachians, a place and way of life that was mostly insulated from mainstream American culture. 

But imagine a magical plant, that grew quickly and strongly and thrived in poor soils, that provided food and cash crops for you and your livestock, that provided wood for you to build your home and any household tools and furniture, that provided fire wood, that created bountiful forests teeming with wildlife, and that was so abundant that its forests were treated like a communal garden without boundaries or property lines. 

Now also imagine that its wood made world class wine barrels.

The story of the American chestnut can be seen as one of the cautionary tales of globalization. Its extinction was caused by a fungal blight brought to America on Asian chestnut trees that had evolved a natural resistance to the fungus. If you know anything about the phylloxera epidemic that destroyed most of Europe’s grapevines in the late 1800’s, this story may sound similar. Imagine, though, if the phylloxera epidemic had not been stopped and all the vines in France had been killed along with the ways of life that grew out of the great winegrowing regions of Europe, and all the wine that we know and drink to this day had ceased to exist.

That’s what happened to the American chestnut and the cultures who relied upon it.  There never was an eleventh hour rescue by grafting onto resistant rootstock, or by any other method of salvation. The tale of the American chestnut doesn’t have a happy ending… yet. 

But that’s where those world class wine barrels made from American chestnut come in. 

My wife and I went through fermentation and elevage in Pennsylvania, the heartland of the American chestnut. Through Centralas wine we are trying to bring about a happy ending for it. By using wine barrels made from reclaimed, fallen American chestnut wood, we hope to bring attention to this ecological tragedy and show the value this tree can have for the global wine industry. 

The American chestnut really is magical. Despite the near total annihilation of the tree, its roots live on under the soil. Each year it sends up shoots, here and there throughout the forest, trying to live again. Those shoots may survive a year or two or even more, but the blight eventually kills them. The roots keep living, though, and trying. 

We think the American chestnut tree could benefit from some attention. By making great wine in barrels made with American chestnut we hope to show the world that it is a viable and valuable alternative to oak for cooperage, and therefore worthy of the investment of the time and resources necessary to save it from extinction. 

The wood we will use is sourced from American chestnut trees killed by the blight and found fallen in the Pennsylvania Appalachians. None of these precious trees were cut down for their wood. As of the posting of this article, our friend in PA has cut the fallen chestnut and we are allowing it to weather through at least two winters to leach out rough tannin and other strong flavors. Once ready, we’ll be looking for a cooperage willing to work the wood into barrels.

To learn more about the American chestnut, and the efforts to resurrect it, visit the website of the American Chestnut Foundation.

To see a comparison of flavor profiles of European chestnut against various other oak species when used for wine barrels, search for the study titled, “Aromatic potential of Castanea sativa Mill. compared to Quercus species to be used in cooperage.”

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