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A History of African Wines Under British and French Colonialism

When it comes to wine-producing continents, Africa is often seen at the bottom of the list, if not completely forgotten. Although most African countries aren’t known for viticulture or winemaking, several have notable wines built into their complex colonial histories.

Given that there is minimal wine production in Africa compared to other winemaking continents and countries, one must wonder whether the British and French, who colonized most of the African countries, left their wine-loving legacy behind.

The growth of Islam in Northern Africa also stalled the popularity of wine, as the religious doctrines frown upon the consumption of wine. However, countries like Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria practiced wine cultivation primarily because of the influence of French colonialism.

Africa prioritizes Agriculture more than viticulture as its economy relies heavily on food production and export. The small percentage of wine cultivated in the region is primarily for export purposes and is centered around Northern and Southern Africa. The relationship between wine and Northern Africa dates back to ancient times; it began with Egypt and then flowed to the Mediterranean coastal regions that settled at Carthage (now known as Tunisia).

The History of Wine in Some African Countries…

Algeria

Like most African countries, Algeria isn’t a strong force on the wine-growing map, but they have produced wine since the Phoenicians settled on the land. Winemaking in Algeria flourished under Roman rule until the Muslim conquests occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries.

When the French colonized Algeria in 1830, vineyards became popular again, owing to the demands of the pieds-noir. A phylloxera epidemic attacked a large percentage of French vineyards in the mid-19th Century, so Algerian wine was exported to France to compensate for the loss.1

Colonialism and African Wine

Tunisia

Like Algeria, winemaking in Tunisia began with the Phoenician settlers upon the introduction of Carthage. Wine cultivation continued well into Roman rule in 146 BC. After that, Arabs took over Tunisia in the 8th century AD, severely hampered wine activity. Before the French conquered Tunisia in 1881, the country discovered large-scale wine production and maintained production until its independence in 1956. Sadly, the country lacked winemaking expertise, and the vineyards soon ceased to thrive.2

Morocco

It is no surprise that Morocco has the same colonial wine history as its neighboring countries, Algeria and Tunisia. While Tunisia and Algeria produced wines in large quantities, Morrocan wine lagged, despite its French influence. When Morocco gained independence in 1956, about 55,000 hectares of land were dedicated to wine cultivation. Surprisingly, even when the French left Morocco after independence, winemaking continued in the country up until the 1960s.3

South Africa

South African wines are known as one of the New World Wines. The country’s winemaking history dates back to the Dutch East Indian company, which had a supply station at the cape of good hope. In the 19th Century, South Africa surrendered to British rule, which benefitted the winemaking country.

South African wine boomed as it made its way into the British market. The country enjoyed this boom until the 1860s when the French Government reduced the tariffs that benefited South African wine exports more than French exports.4

Namibia

Unlike its southern neighbor, South Africa, winemaking in Namibia has proven to be quite challenging due largely to its dry climate and need for irrigation. Located closer to the equator, it is far from the common “30 to 50 degrees latitude” rule. Nonetheless, the country still has a viticultural history. Unlike other countries on our list, Namibia wasn’t colonized by the French or British but by the Germans.5

Winemaking in Namibia began in 1884 when the Germans took control of the country. Roman catholic priests from Germany were the first to plant vineyards in Namibia.5 In the late 1960s, Namibia’s winemaking potential came to a dead end when the last Roman priests died. The vineyards were promptly replaced with schools and churches.

Senegal

Despite the French ruling this African country for nearly three centuries till 1960, there has never been any winemaking attempt in Senegal. It was only in January 2013 that two ambitious men, Philippe Francois and Francois Norman, planted the first wine grapes in Senegal, including Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut, Syrah, and Sangioves.6

Colonialism and African Wine

1 Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford, 2006), pp. 11–12
2 Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford, 2006), pp. 719
3 Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford, 2006), pp. 453–454
4 C. De Bosdari, Wines of the Cape (1955)
5 https://www.namibian.com.na [accessed 23/2/22] 6 https://www.wine-explorers.net/en/travelog/senegal-makes-wine-at-the-foot-of-the-baobabs [accessed 23/2/22]

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