Can you guess which country was the world’s largest wine exporter between 1930 and 1960? France? Italy? Spain? Australia? What if I told you that until about 50 years ago, Algeria was not only the world’s largest wine exporter, but also the fourth-largest wine producer?
A little bit of history…
Although grapevines have been present in Algeria for thousands of years, it is only at the end of the 19th century that Algerian viticulture truly developed, under the French colonial occupation. It all started in 1830, when France annexed Algeria – in the early years, France attempted to kick off the wine production locally, which ended up being quite unsuccessful due to a lack of know-how and appropriate technology for producing wine in such a hot climate (the refrigeration technology not being available at the time).
In the 1960s, the Algerian wine industry starting taking off as a result of both technological progress and the spread of a severe disease in France: phylloxera. When the phylloxera epidemic struck France and ravaged the country’s vineyards – one third of the total French vine area was destroyed – Algeria’s cultivable land became the only solution to a state emergency. Tens of thousands of families, many of whom were winemakers who had been hurt by the phylloxera outbreak, immigrated to Algeria and occupied several hectares of land, bringing know-how and expertise along with them (which was seriously lacking in Algeria at the time). To put it simply, the initial breakthrough came with technological advances and the spread of the disease in France.
What about today?
You’re probably wondering why the world’s largest wine exporter seems nonexistent to the wine world nowadays. Algeria now produces and exports very little wine – and there is a historical explanation to this sudden switch. The country’s wine production started falling in 1962 for political and poor management reasons, when France retreated from its colony. In addition, it is important to remember that Algeria is mainly Muslim – a religion that prohibits the consumption of alcohol – which explains why a local market never developed after France’s departure, despite decades of successful wine production.
French import restrictions contributed to the collapse of the Algerian wine industry; and the reverse is also true. The growth of Algeria’s wine industry had an unknown but huge impact on the French and even European wine industry. It triggered the introduction of important wine regulations in the early years of the 19thcentury and during the 1930s. When exported around the world, Algerian wine was advertised as vin français (French wine), as “Algeria [was then] an integral part of France”. This left a bad taste in French producers’ mouths, whose riots and protests forced the government to take action. And this is how the first regulations on French wine were born. A law was introduced at the beginning of the 19th century, requiring French wine labels to state their region of origin. Over the next several years, these boundaries, known as “appellations”, were drawn up, leading to the basis of the codified modern system we know today: ever heard of the AOC laws?
And for a taste?
Algerian wines have their own unique character resulting from a combination of rich sandy soils and a hot sun. Algeria’s production today is very insignificant. Try to find an Algerian Carignan in your big local wine store, and you’ll be out of luck. Same goes for the other commonly used grapes in Algeria:the reds Cinsault and Alicante, and whites Clairette and Furmint. Try to look into these producers: Coteaux de Medea, Chateau Tellagh and Domaine El Bordj.
Algerian wine may be yesterday’s news, but its spectacular rise, impact on today’s wine industry and institutional legacy continues until today. If you are intrigued and would like to learn more about it, read Giulia Meloni and Johan Swinnen’s paper on the topic.