The History of Winemaking in Algeria: The Beginning (part I)
The Beginning (part I)
Algeria was the largest wine producer in the middle of the previous century, and its wine export was more than the combined export of the three significant exporters, i.e., France, Spain, and Italy. The Phoenicians’ ancient colonies are where Algerian winemaking first began. Later on, Carthaginians traded large amounts of wine across the Mediterranean Sea and influenced winemaking in the region.
The Romans used the region as wine-producing land to supply wine to the empire. However, winemaking did not reach a significant level in Algeria at earlier ages. With the Muslim invasions of North Africa in the 7th & 8th centuries, wine production was severely curtailed due to the prohibition of alcohol under their religious scripture. That changed when France annexed Algeria as a colony in 1830, marking the end of the 19th century.
Immediately Algeria came under French rule; viticulture was reviewed to meet the needs of the local French settlers. However, the initial attempts were unsuccessful, and the settlers had to import wine from France. However, when the Phylloxera epidemic devastated French vineyards in the mid-19th century, the scientific community came forward to solve the wine production in the hot climate of Algeria.
It was observed that when the temperature in the tanks reaches 40oC, the sugar in grapes cannot be converted into alcohol, and fermentation stops. Additionally, it was observed that the addition of yeast contains the fermentation process due to some unknown reasons. A leading winemaking scientist Pasteur introduced the concept of cold fermentation to produce wine in the hot climate of Algeria.
In the Beginning, grape cultivation was carried out by less skilled local wine growers and French soldiers. However, the preliminary success opened the door for many opportunities for prominent and experienced winegrowers across Europe. 8=
Phylloxera destroyed the French wine industry and reduced production by 70 percent; France produced only 30 million hectares of wine, while its local consumption was around 45 million hectares. To fill this gap between supply and demand, France relied heavily on wine production in Algeria to limit its import from Spain and Italy.
For many winegrowers in the Midi area, Algeria’s vine-growing industry became significant. Between 1871 and 1900, it is estimated that close to 50,000 French households, many of them were winegrowers, emigrated to Algeria. Initially, Algerian vineyards were planted to remedy southern French wines’ diminished quality and quantity.
To boost the alcohol content of French wines and enhance their flavour, France began with important wines made in Algeria. It is recorded that the wine import to France from Algeria rose from 1.2 million hectoliters in 1875 to 10.5 million hectoliters in 1890.
In the early years of wine production in Algeria, loans from the Caisse régionale de Crédit Agricole (CACAM) and other institutions to the settlers were a major factor in the sudden expansion in wine output. The expansion of vine plants starting in the 1880s and the conversion of Algeria’s wheat economy into a wine export economy were the results of a confluence of speculative motives and governmental actions.
With the increase in the local demands, France strongly promoted wine production in Algeria to reduce its dependence on the neighboring European counties. However, with the recovery of the French vineyard from the pandemic, the local wine producer objected to importing from Algeria.
The newly produced grafted grape tree was expensive, and only a large winegrower could afford it. Additionally, the new hybrid grapes could not produce high alcohol level wine (13-16 percent). And only a combination of the recovered French harvests and the Algerian wines could produce quality wines. This arrangement led to huge price drops for the local wine producers.
The French farmers who had not fled to Algeria to revive their vines were unable to sell their wines for a profit, and the wine prices were reduced by 60 percent by the turn of the century. Disgruntled farmers, particularly those from lower-quality regions that produced relatively inexpensive table wine, full the subsequent tensions to street rallies and violent rioting.
The local producers demanded to limit imports from Algeria. Several affluent wine-producing regions, including Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne, petitioned the French government to enact quality rules. The main requirement was to clearly indicate where precisely the wine in a particular bottle had been grown and price it accordingly.
In July 1905, the French Governor-General of Algeria, Charles Jonnart, and their British business partner, James Leaky, offered 50,000 hectoliters of Algerian wine for sale in London in an effort to reduce the amount of Algerian wine available on the French market and find a different market for the excess production.
“Algeria is now an intrinsic part of France,” the advertising claimed, claiming that the product was French. The commercial enraged French wine growers. A regulation mandating French wine labels to specify the appellation, or region of origin, was implemented a month later. And regional boundaries were drawn to isolate the Algerian wine in the market.
Labeling the origin of production has a minimal impact on the sale of the quality Algerian wine production Recovery of the French vineyard from Phylloxera and disturbances due to WWI dropped Algerian output to 5 million hectoliters in 1922, but production climbed back to 20 million hectoliters in 1935.
More laws were introduced in the coming years to limit the entry of Algerian vines into French markets, at the urging of French winemakers, limiting yields and production restrictions, a ban on planting new vines, and other restrictive measures. These laws, and World War II, finally made a dent. Although not nearly as much as French winemakers would have liked, Algerian production declined.
In 1961, a year before France relinquished control of Algeria; the newly independent country would have been the fourth-largest wine producer in the world, after only France, Italy, and Spain. Algerian wine production, which stood at 15 million hectoliters before independence, was put to death by Algeria’s newfound independence despite all the efforts of French winemakers (and we’ve simply summarized them). The French tried their best to drive one of those nails in, though.
Want to read more about Algerian wine? Then read this book!
Jancis Robinson, ed. (2006). “Algeria.” Oxford Companion to Wine (Third ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 11–12 https://vinepair.com/wine-blog/beginners-guide-starting-wine-club [accessed 21/2/22] 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.