The Forgotten King of Wine Exporters: The Algerian Wine Industry

Algeria’s wine industry only produced around 0.6 million hectolitres of wine in 2008. However, in 1962 Algeria produced 15 million hectolitres of wine. And this wasn’t a fluke, as Algeria was the most prominent wine exporter in the world for much of the first half of the 20th century. So what changed?

In this post, we will go over how Algeria rose from not exporting wine till the 19th century to the king of wine exporter in the middle of the 20th century and back to non-exporter at the end of the 20th century.

French Colonies in Africa

The Algerian wine industry emerged seemingly out of nowhere in the nineteenth century. The history of the European colonization of Africa is also closely linked to the history of the Algerian wine industry. 

1830: French Invasion of Algeria

During the ‘Scramble for Africa’, Algeria was one of the first African countries to come under European rule. In 1830, under King Charles X, the French invaded the country as it was close to southern France. The initial military conquest was wildly successful, and within a few short months, the coastal regions in the north of Algeria were under French control.

1848: French Organization of Algeria

At the beginning of 1848, the French organized the northern parts of Algeria into départements. Moreover, Algeria witnessed extensive French settlement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and many French people viewed Algeria as an extension of France itself rather than a colony.

1850s-1860s: Settlers Started Vineyards 

Initially, the French began introducing the most Gallic of pursuits into Algeria from the mid-nineteenth century onwards: winemaking

In the 1850s and 1860s, French settlers in Algeria started taking advantage of the Mediterranean climate in northern Algeria. The ideal grape-growing micro-climate in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains began developing the wine industry in French Algeria.

The Destruction of Europe’s Vineyards

1860-1880s: Algerian and European Vineyards

The wine industry was booming in the 1880s as Algerian wine filled the void left by the destruction of Europe’s vineyards by the phylloxera epidemic between the 1860s and the 1880s. The Algerian trade, where Carignan, Cinsaut, and Aramon grapes dominated, grew exponentially for half a century until the 1930s.

1930s: Algerian Wine

By the 1930s, Algeria was producing about 6-7% of all wine globally. 

But its role in the global wine trade was far more significant than this figure suggests. Algeria’s population is primarily Muslim; therefore, most of their wine was exported. As a result, in the years prior to the First World War, Algeria accounted for 40% of wine exports globally.

1930s: French Wine

Incredibly, by the 1930s, Algeria accounted for 67% of exports! 

In contrast, although France was the world’s largest producer of wine in the early twentieth century (accounting for one-third of the global total), it only made up 12% of the world’s exports. This is largely as France only exported about 3% of their wine. Given this, Algeria was a global powerhouse regarding wine exports in the first half of the twentieth century.

Post World War II: Beginning of the ECSC

There were encouraging signs that Algeria might continue to grow its exports after the Second World War. For example, Algeria joined the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), along with France, when it was established in 1951 before the EU was created.

The European Economic Community (EEC)

Early 1950s: Algeria Joins the EEC

Algeria also became part of the successor to the ECSC, the European Economic Community (EEC)

This development in 1951 ensured that Algerian wine producers had access to the markets of the six initial member states of the ECSC: West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. These countries made up a huge proportion of the global market for wine in the 1950s. If it had remained part of the new market in the future Algerian wine would have continued to prosper.

Mid to Late 1950s: The Beginning of the Decolonization of Africa

As French Algeria joined the EEC in 1957, the country was engaged in an independence struggle. 

Since the end of the Second World War, there has been an increased drive to decolonize Africa. This was mostly inspired by the decolonization of India when the country acquired its independence from Britain in 1947. In 1954, the Algerian National Liberation Front started a war against the French colonial authorities to free the country from colonial rule.

1950s-1960s: Guerrilla War 

This fight for independence persisted and became a guerrilla war throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. By the early 1960s, France could not retain control of French Algeria, and the French President, Charles de Gaulle, opened negotiations with the National Liberation Front. 

These negotiations resulted in the Evian Accords of 1962, granting Algeria independence from France.

Algeria Acquired Independence From France

1962: Algerian Independence

On 5 July 1962, Algeria finally gained independence from France after 132 years of colonial rule. But what would now become of the wine industry in Algeria?

Things remained relatively steady in the first few months after the independence. Then, in December 1962, the first president of independent Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, requested that the existing rules of former French Algeria’s trade be maintained.

1963: Any Hope for Algerian Wine? 

Pursuant from this, a document produced by the EEC’s Council of Ministers in 1963 asserted that Algeria was to be treated “de facto as a Member State of the Community.” The overwhelming goal was to maintain the status quo in trade terms between the EEC and Algeria.

This signaled the possibility of Algeria’s wine industry. As the domestic market shrank even further once the French colonial settlers began leaving the count, the wine industry was wholly reliant on foreign markets.

Post-Independence Turmoil 

But Algeria’s post-independence politics quickly scuppered any survival of the wine industry. A coup d’état in 1965 brought Houari Bounmedienne to power at the head of a military junta. This lasted for over a decade until he died in 1978.

After that, Algeria entered into decades of military dictatorship, religious extremism, and civil war. These developments and concerns caused France and Italy, in particular, to worry about whether Algerian wine would damage their domestic wine industries.

The Fall of Alegria’s Wine Industry

Reason 1: No More EEC Benefits

Many wine-importing countries in Europe stopped treating Algeria as though it was part of the EEC from a trade perspective. By 1973, The EEC removed all of the benefits that the Algerian wine industry has relied on. The result of all this on Algeria’s wine industry was catastrophic. 

Reason 2: New Ownership and Shift in Goods Produced

From 1962, the state or Algerian Muslims took ownership over the previously French-owned vineyards. New owners converted their vineyards so they could produce different goods in line with their religious beliefs. However, the 1960s collapse of the Algerian wine trade was mainly due to the decline in European exports.

Reason 3: Tighter Restrictions

Even those who attempted to export wine were faced with further challenges. For example, the EEC set regulations on the type of bottle that wine that was needed to sell wine in Europe. Meaning Algerians had to buy bottles from the EEC if it wished to sell them to European countries.

Algerian Wine Trade Dried Up

Algeria tried to find other markets in response to these efforts to maintain Algerian exports. 

For instance, in 1969, Algeria signed an agreement with the Soviet Union to sell 5 million hectolitres of Algerian wine to the Russians over seven years. However, Moscow set unprofitable prices, and therefore their trade did not continue.

The EEC locked Algeria out causing the wine trade to dry up in the 1960s. By the early 21st century, Algeria’s wine production accounted for just 0.2% of the global total and a tiny 0.1% of the world’s wine exports. Thus, in the early twentieth century, the world’s premier wine exporter is barely considered amongst the echelons of the world’s top wine-producing countries today.

Summary

Algerian wine history is complex and deeply intertwined with politics, mainly colonization and then the independence of Algeria. In the 1930s, Algeria had grown into the world’s largest exporter of wine. However, when the French ceded control in 1962, things soon turned south for Algeria’s wine industry. 

Read more about the history of the global wine trade on the This Day In Wine History blog. You may also enjoy learning about the wine market in Hong Kong or the history of Waiheke Island

Want to read more about the role of France and Algerian wine? Try this book!

The Blood of the Colony: Wine and the Rise and Fall of French Algeria

On This Day In Wine History

14 June – On this day in 1830, a French army consisting of 34,000 men under the command of General Louis-Auguste de Bourmont landed 27 kilometers west of Algiers in Algeria. They began the French conquest of this vast portion of North Africa. France established a significant colony here in the years that followed. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, French settlers in Algeria began planting vineyards. Eventually, the Algerian wine industry became the most extensive wine exporter in the world. This market hold lasted for most of the first half of the twentieth century.

18 April – On this day in 1951, the Treaty of Paris was signed. This brought the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the forerunner of the European Union, into being. The French organized Algeria into the French département system. Algeria technically became part of the ECSC. This meant that the Algerian wine industry had access to a large market in Europe for years to come.

5 July – On this day in 1962, the result of an independence referendum was held in French Algeria. After eight years of a fierce war of independence, a staggering 99.7% of voters voted for independence. Today, Algerians celebrate the 5th of July as their Independence Day. 

References

[1] Phillip Chiviges Naylor, France and Algeria: A History of Decolonization and Transformation (Gainesville, 2002).

[2] Algeria’s exit from the EEC, or ‘Algexit’, see Kiran Klaus Patel, Project Europe: A History (Cambridge, 2020), pp. 212–220; Benjamin Martill and Uta Staiger, Brexit and Beyond: Rethinking the Futures of Europe (London, 2018).

[3] General history of modern Algeria, see John Ruedy, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation (Indiana, 2005).

[4] Daniel Caruso and Joanna Geneve, ‘Trade and History: The Case of EU-Algeria Relations’, in Boston University School of Law, Vol. 14 (2014).

[5] Meloni and Swinnen, ‘The Rise and Fall’, 

PHOTO ATTRIBUTION:

By Frank Bättermann – Flickr: presentable countryside, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27717783 

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