Algerian Wine Era, its Global Impact, and Wine History (Part II)
It is hard to imagine in the 21st-century global wine economy that Algeria had been the most prominent global wine exporter, but this was the case until about 50 years ago. Algerian wine output had heightened dramatically between 1880 and 1930, and Algeria became the most extensive wine exporter in the world during the 1950s. For much of the past century, this North African country had developed into a juggernaut, shipping more wine beyond its borders than France, Italy, and Spain combined. However, the decline in Algerian wine output was as spectacular as its astronomical rise: the country now produces and exports very little wine. As the Algerian wine industry grew larger and larger, in the early 1900s and 1930s the French government began implementing more wine regulations. Consequently, it can be concluded that the Algerian wine industry had a significant impact on French regulations.
Although Algeria is not considered a large part of today’s wine industry, it has helped shape the wine world in the past. The Algerian wine-growing tradition dates back to the settlement by the Phoenicians in 1500 BC, which continued under the rule of Algeria by the Roman Empire. However, the height of the Algerian wine industry was in the late 1930s, when more than 4,000 square kilometers of wine-growing land produced 2,100 megaliters (i.e., 550,000,000 gallons) of wine. In the 1950s, just before the Algerian War of Independence, Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan wine made up almost two-thirds of the global wine industry. Algerian red wine was mainly utilized to blend with red wine from southern France, to boost both the alcohol content and the color. Most of the wine grown in Algeria at this time was made up of the grape varietal Carignan.
By the early 1900s, wine production was responsible for half of Algeria’s exports and nearly one-third of its GDP. The share of exports would continue to grow, but the rapid success had already sowed what would turn out to be an equally stunning decline of the industry. Because the French settlers had control over most of the Algerian wine industry until Algeria’s independence in the 20th century, they were the ones who profited most from the wine export revenues. Thus, the rapid growth of the wine industry, which made only the French immigrants wealthier, along with an increase of French immigration, created a shift in the Algerian economy, and boosted France’s power in the region. This new economy was in part created by France’s effort to change how Algeria’s lands were owned. Land once owned by tribes were converted to individual ownership. Through legislation, the French gradually reduced the amount of land the Algerian tribes owned, and whose ancestors had owned. Of course, the French concentrated their efforts on the fertile lands on the coast and the plains. They privatized and sold this valuable land to those who could afford it, which were the wealthiest of the French settlers. Leaving only the meager, barren, mountainous lands to the Algerian tribes. Right before Algeria gained its independence, European settlers owned 90% of the 400,000 hectares of vineyards in Algeria. Consequently, faced with economic austerity and unemployment, native farm workers who were not landowners, and even the fellahin, moved to the European-occupied plains, creating a substantial and cheap labor force.
After Algeria’s independence, the French government was left with a wine industry in an area that did not appeal to the local market and was a symbol of the local people’s former subjugation. However, the real issue for the French was the decline of profits when most of the wine producers, consisting of French colonists, left. The diminishing profits were exacerbated by the French government’s drastic importation cuts. Later on, the Boumediene’s government tried to enter into trade relations with the Soviet Union in the 1970s in order to maintain wine export earnings and avoid the exacerbating unemployment problems. However, wine production continued to decline significantly. By 2000, Algeria was still exporting to France, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Belgium, but the number of vineyards at this time was only 15% of their former size at the time of their independence. Although these vineyards remain a part of the Algerian landscape and provide a reminder of the former colony’s connection to date, only a few of them have currently endured. Most of these vineyards no longer produced wine grapes but table grapes instead.
This Day in Wine History
1515: Algeria became a province of Spain, and so began an era of Spanish rule that lasted until 1962, when Algeria gained independence from France. During this period, Spanish influence was felt in many aspects of Algerian life, including wine production – In fact, Spanish wine was planted throughout Algeria as far back as 1702.
1830: One of the most famous wineries in North Africa is located at Moulay Mustapha near Tlemcen, in southern Algeria. It was built by French settlers around 1830 and named after King Mohammed III (reigned 1808-1832), who ruled from 1830 until his death in 1848.
Want to read more? Try these books!
- Meloni, Giulia; Swinnen, Johan (2014). “The rise and fall of the world’s largest wine exporter and its institutional legacy.” Journal of Wine Economics. 9 (1): 3–33.