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The Rise and Fall of a North African Wine Giant

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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 / 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.