The Rise and Fall of a North African Wine Giant

A broken wine bottle with a algerian flag in the shape of the country on the label
Getty Images

During the first half of the 20th century, the world’s fourth-largest producer of wine was Algeria. The Muslim-majority nation in North Africa was under wine-loving French colonial rule at the time, and scores of European winegrowers, many reeling from the Great French Wine Blight that destroyed vineyards across southern France in the 1870–80s, had crossed the Mediterranean in search of fertile lands.

Over the half-century preceding 1930, colonial viticulturists established a veritable wine-growing empire rooted deep in the Algerian soil. Their success was not so much evidence of efficient production or natural abundance (although Algeria does have distinctive regional terroirs) as of the violence that facilitated their work. Colonial-era policies that allowed for the expropriation of land and exploitation of workers kept wine flowing from Algerian ports for decades, amid the intense conflicts that marred the 20th century until Algerian independence in 1962.

“Wine was so central to the economic life of French Algeria that it can be used to trace the rise and fall of the colony itself,” writes Owen White in The Blood of the Colony: Wine and the Rise and Fall of French Algeria.

As the French empire waned, so did Algerian wine production. In the 60 years since Algerian independence, wine has remained precarious, pulled in different directions by its rich but thorny history and current political and religious pressures. But local producers and purveyors say the industry is ripe for revival, and deserving of it too.

A worker collects grapes in a vineyard in the Sidi Bel Abbès highlands, some 435 kilometres (270 miles) southwest of Algiers
A worker collects grapes in a vineyard in the Sidi Bel Abbès highlands, some 435 kilometres (270 miles) southwest of Algiers / Photo by Ryad Kramdi / AFP via Getty Images

Of course, wine had been cultivated in Algeria long before the French invaded in 1830— excellent wine, if 18th-century British traveler Thomas Shaw is to be believed. He claimed wine from Algiers “was not inferior to the best hermitage, either in briskness of flavor or taste,” and that it rivaled even the wines of Portugal and Spain. Centuries earlier, the Phoenicians and Romans also cultivated vines in Algeria after domesticating the wild grape varieties that still sprout uninhibited in the regions of Tlemcen, Mostaganem, Médéa, and Mascara.

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However, it was with support from colonial institutions that European settlers put the Algerian wine industry on course to become one of the world’s largest. Offered expropriated land and discounted loans to settle and establish vineyards, winegrowers from the other side of the Mediterranean dispossessed indigenous populations and drew vast numbers of Algerians into salaried labor as they transformed hundreds of thousands of hectares into vineyards in the late 19th century. When French statesman Jules Ferry toured Algeria in 1892, he reported seeing neat rows of vines “covering the plains, climbing the hills, as if they are hastening to consecrate…the permanent seizure of the African land in the name of France.”

Soon, wine made from grapes cultivated in the temperate hills of the Algiers Sahel was being shipped to France, first in wooden barrels and later specialized wine tankers. By the 1930s, wine was Algeria’s top export, comprising more than half the value of the country’s total exports. As much as 90% of the exported wine landed in France at ports like Marseille, Rouen, and Sète.

That all changed during World War II, as the conflict disrupted maritime trade. By 1942, the percentage of Algeria’s wine harvest shipped to France had fallen to less than half of its pre-war totals. Exports would climb again after the war but never recover, as French wine-growing regions also lobbied to keep Algerian wines out of the market to reduce competition.

As demand for wine in France shifted, so did power in Algeria. An emboldened nationalist movement launched a violent bid for Algerian independence in 1954. At this point, European settlers owned around 90% of some 400,000 hectares of vineyards in the country, and nationalist uprisings often targeted them for sabotage as symbols of colonial domination.

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The truth was more complex, of course. Over eight decades of intensive wine cultivation, generations of European viticulturists, their Algerian-born children, and indigenous populations had come together, albeit under deeply unequal conditions, to produce wine that was “never entirely French, nor ever entirely Algerian,” writes Maïa Venturini for Jadaliyya. The product had also become such a significant source of revenue that, after Algerians won the brutal war of independence in 1962, early governments tried to sustain local viticulture and continued to export wine to their former colonizer.

But the market began to collapse as much of Algeria’s European population and occupying French troops returned to Europe. Then, in 1971, with demand already in freefall and France threatening to stop buying in response to the nationalization of the Algerian oil and gas industries, Algerian leader Houari Boumédiene ordered vines across the nation to be uprooted, precipitating economic and ecological disaster. Thus, the Algerian wine sector fell as it rose—almost in a flash, amid tremendous violence.

A general view shows a vineyard in the Sidi Bel Abbes highlands, some 435 kilometres (270 miles) southwest of Algier
Vineyard of bush vines in Algeria’s Sidi Bel Abbès highlands / Photo by Ryad Kramdi / AFP via Getty Images

The more recent story of Algerian wine is one of precarity.

“At the moment, we see the wine industry is faltering,” says Aghiles Ourad, a Brit of Algerian descent and founder of The Other Grape, a company that brings wines from places like Algeria and Lebanon to the United Kingdom for sale and special events. But Ourad says there’s also real potential for revitalization in Algeria.

There are two major wine cultivators in the country today: the privately-owned SociĂ©tĂ© des Grands Crus de l’Ouest and the state-owned Office National de Commercialisation des Produits Viti-vinicoles. The current political climate makes their work difficult. Having faced popular uprisings as recently as last year, the government is keen on saving face among conservative contingents by positioning itself against the wine industry. Religious pressures also depress local demand, even if many Muslim Algerians may partake in private. Despite constraints, SGCO and ONCV produce award-winning collections of fresh rosĂ©s, full-bodied reds, and aromatic whites.

“The wine itself is really good,” says Ourad. “You feel the sun. You feel the terroir—there’s a reason why the French made it into this colossal industry.”

Ourad hopes that attention and investment from abroad, matched with growing interest among young generations of Algerians at home and in the diaspora, could again earn Algerian wine a place on the global stage. But whereas the 20th-century Algerian wine boom was “built on the backs of Algerians, on their suffering,” Ourad says he envisions a 21st-century industry brought to life for the Algerian people.

“We have a chance to revive the industry and turn it into a money-making machine,” he says. “This time for Algerians.”

Published on June 8, 2022
Topics: Wine History