The Withering of Algerian Wine

How the North African country went from the world’s top exporter to endless acres of uprooted grape vines — and why it matters to return to the craft again

The Withering of Algerian Wine
An employee inspects a glass of red wine at a winery in southwest of Algiers / Ryad Kramdi / AFP via Getty Images

Farid Ait Ouali is taking me on a “wine tour” in western Algeria. Since completing agronomy and enology studies in Algeria, Greece and France, he has been working in wine for 25 years. A gentle and candid person who clearly has deep affection for this industry, Farid works for Société des Grands Crus de l’Ouest Algérien (SGCO), Algeria’s first private wine company.

Illuminated by a gentle sun and azure skies, we start in Mostaganem before heading east to Aachaacha, Ouillis and Sidi Lakhdar. Farid takes great pride in conducting this private tour — there are barely any tourists in Algeria, let alone wine tourists. We visit vineyards, speak to farmers, go inside colonial-era wineries that SGCO has rehabilitated and, of course, taste some wine. In the space of a day, a world that is mostly ignored unfurls before my eyes.

Algeria’s wine industry was once a colossus, producing more than 500 million gallons a year in a country where 85% of the population was Muslim. Until 1970, it was the world’s fourth-biggest producer and number-one exporter of wine.

But this wine industry was colonial. After the conquest of Algeria that started in 1830, France wanted to pursue a policy of “complémentarité,” whereby its colonial lands would complement, rather than rival, the French economy through the production of agricultural crops that didn’t exist in France itself. They tried tobacco, cotton, sugar and tropical fruits, but none grew well enough in Algeria for commercial exploitation. The grapevine did, making Algeria its home, its roots shooting deep down into the soil, anchoring itself to the land — much like the European settlers.

In 1879, the phylloxera pest, a louse that eats vine roots, ravaged mainland France, decimating its vineyards. For the first time, the French national supply of wine couldn’t satisfy demand, and this new reality fed government impetus to officially abandon complémentarité and fully embrace the development of the wine industry in Algeria. Land and loans were made available to winemakers, and they took maximum advantage: In 1880, Algeria produced 25 million gallons of wine; by 1900, this had climbed to more than 100 million gallons annually.

Rows and rows of grape varieties known for their ability to do well in hot, dry climates were planted: Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan, Ugni Blanc and Clairette — all indigenous to the northern bank of the Mediterranean. European settlers, most of them poor laborers from the same areas as the grapes, also went south to work on the vines.

Wine became the lifeblood of the colony. Figures of the colonial elite, such as Henri Borgeaud, producer of the wine Domaine de la Trappe, achieved obscene levels of wealth by exporting over 2 million gallons of wine a year. Even those of the working class not consigned to working the fields depended on wine for a living: the Algerian-born French philosopher Albert Camus’ father, uncle and brother all worked in the wine industry, making barrels for transportation.

Indeed, the livelihoods of many Indigenous Algerians depended on the vine. Coerced to work on land that was once theirs, they were paid meager sums — barely enough to pay for staple goods such as couscous. Conditions were not much better. As a Russian prisoner of war working alongside them once wrote, “To the French, local people are nothing more than working cattle.”

By the end of World War II, with hints of revolution in the air, the sentiment among local Algerians was changing. By 1954, nationalist fervor had reached fever pitch, and the symbolism of the vine as a vestige of colonialism was inescapable. Algerian vineyard workers abandoned their jobs in droves and joined the resistance led by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).

Former bosses now became targets. Vines, which had been so carefully pruned, were hacked down. The countryside became a riskier place for the settlers. Some died, others left, and those who remained called for backup. Soldiers were deployed to protect the rural wineries, and with typical colonial brutality, they used the fermentation vats as rudimentary cells to hold captured rebels. Over 100 people asphyxiated in various wineries before this practice was outlawed.

Wine production did not immediately decline after independence in 1962. It still represented over 50% of national exports — a fundamental source of income for a fledgling state. Agreements were signed to supply both France and the Soviet Union with tens of millions of gallons per year. Indeed, at this point in history, Algerian wine was still “a thing,” still bigger in volume than anything the “new world” of the United States, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand produced.

The first blow to Algeria’s wine industry came from Houari Boumediene, Algeria’s second president. In 1971, he nationalized the oil industry. As a result, France refused to buy Algerian wine, and so Boumediene canceled Algeria’s wine agreements, halted exports and uprooted most of the vines across the country. Adopting Islamic principles for political pragmatism, he justified his actions that wine — seen as “haram” (illegal) in Islam — was not something Algerians consumed anyway. Algeria was still the fourth-biggest producer of wine in the world at the time it dropped off the wine map (today, it is the U.S., behind Italy, Spain and France).

Five years later, another direct attack took place: Taxes on alcohol skyrocketed, increasing its price by 400% to 500%. Officially, this was an attempt to foster national unity through the promotion of values based on an Arab-Muslim identity. Unofficially, it was a way of bolstering the government’s Islamic credentials in the face of a growing Islamist threat to its religious legitimacy.

It was not enough. By 1990, the tsunami of political Islam had bulldozed its way across the country. After a democratic opening, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), an Islamist party, won control of two-thirds of Algeria’s regions and communes in local elections. Without delay, they started shutting down en masse bars and shops selling alcohol.

Because of Algeria’s complicated land ownership laws, SGCO buys their grapes from 400 farmers, many of whom will grow a variety of crops. During my wine tour, uprooted vines were a common sight, and Farid showed me many parcels of land where grapes had grown not so long ago.

We stopped to chat with a farmer who was swapping their vines for olive trees. A man with a weathered face, sun-blistered skin and permanently stained fingers, he explained how he felt compelled to uproot because of the “hadra” (gossip) in the community.

The thousands of farmers who grow Algeria’s “raisins de cuve” (wine grapes) are susceptible to societal pressure, more so than any privately owned vineyard would be. It is this reality that makes the Algerian wine industry’s survival of civil war ever more astonishing. After being on course to win central power by a landslide in 1992, the Algerian military dissolved the FIS. Extremist Islamist elements then declared war against the state and anyone who went against their idea of Islamic values.

Much like it did in the war for independence, the vine again became a target. In the winemaking region of Mascara, Islamists chillingly laid out the threat farmers faced: “Cut one grape, and we cut your throat.” The result was that by 2000, Algeria’s vineyards were reduced to 140,000 acres from a high of 875,000 acres at independence, and production bottomed out at 10 million gallons, its lowest to date.

Following the civil war, Islam and religious morality started permeating policy — often manifesting itself through a growing sentiment against alcohol. In one instance in 2003, Islamist parties successfully pushed a law banning all imports of alcohol. Following the parliamentary session, members of the FLN, the majority and officially secular party who voted in favor, said they couldn’t vote any other way during the holy month of Ramadan.

Back in the winery, Farid insists that religion is not the only threat. “It is true that some ‘fellah’ [farmers] are being influenced by certain members of society, but I know that we can overcome this ideological issue if the grapevine remains profitable.” I asked him what he meant by that. After all, wine is a profitable business in the rest of the world.

“A few years ago it would take us two weeks to harvest all the grapes; now it barely takes five days. Farmers are just giving up,” he replied. “It’s getting hotter, and it’s raining less. It didn’t rain between April and September last year, yet this year we were happy because it rained at the end of April, but it came at the moment when the vines were fragile.” He explained how this had led to mildew on the flowers (the stage before turning into grapes), meaning farmers lost an important part of this year’s yield. “They were very frustrated,” he said in exasperation, “but there is nothing we can do.”

While grapes can be drought resistant, with hotter and more erratic weather, farmers are left financially exposed. With no compensatory recourse or safety net from the state, the Algerian wine industry is perennially at risk, as farmers look to replace vines with crops that carry small government subsidies. For Farid, this is a shame, “the vine is a renewable source of income, employs a lot of local people during harvest [it’s all hand-harvested] and can bring in important foreign currency that can buy the medicines we need to import.” The precarity is invariably felt by SGCO’s bottom line, too.

The wine industry has been in a state of anonymous purgatory for a long time now. Only two companies function on any scale — the majority publicly owned Sotravit (former ONCV) and the privately owned SGCO. Yet both are forced to operate in an industry that draws both shame and apathy.

“We were getting ready to participate in an agricultural trade fair,” recalls Farid. “And then we received a message from the economy minister himself — he didn’t want a wine company to be there.” This example, which also happened to Sotravit on a different occasion, is emblematic of the government’s contradictory attitude toward wine. It acknowledges wine’s presence, but there is no political desire to be seen promoting it.

The Algerian government has stepped in to help the ailing industry before. In 2000, a government program promoting agricultural development offered incentives to farmers to plant vines. Vineyard acreage that had been ripped up during the civil war recovered by almost 50% by 2007 (but never to pre-terrorism levels). But this time Farid tells me it’s different.

“No one wants to work in this sector anymore, and the government won’t help pay for your education. My class of 1986 was the last to receive state sponsorship for their enology studies abroad.” In the three wineries I visited, all the employees were middle-aged men. While I know that SGCO has young professionals in their offices, Farid’s point is that he doesn’t see where the next generation of winemakers will come from.

If there may not be many winemakers, there are certainly wine drinkers. Domestic consumption in Algeria stands at more than 10 million gallons a year — demand met by local production and supplemented by imports (the 2003 law was repealed). Yet, Algeria barely looks for wine drinkers abroad. Over the past 10 years, exports have been consistently less than 75,000 gallons per year, and structural issues such as currency controls, poor trade routes and a lack of government patronage mean exports are only falling.

Major players like Spain (with a similar climate and terroir to Algeria) exported over $3 billion of wine in 2020. And in the time since Boumediene uprooted vines, New Zealand grew its wine export industry from nothing to $1.35 billion in 2020. Even Morocco, a country with less vineyard acreage than Algeria, made $12 million in 2019 from selling its wine abroad. Wine’s economic power cannot be ignored.

Algeria’s decision-makers know they’re under considerable pressure. There is a crucial need to inject investment and dynamism into a torpid, creaking economy based on hydrocarbons. A growing population inevitably increases the amount needed to service everyone, and foreign currency reserves have plummeted by 75% in the past eight years.

In its September 2021 Algerian Government Action Plan, attention was paid to cereal crops for self-sufficiency, but none was paid to wine. The economic case for reviving the wine industry’s exports is enough for there to be political appetite for it, but the Algerian state needs the resolve to navigate a deeply complex historical and societal relationship to wine. For a country that once exported over half a billion gallons a year, maybe it’s time to revive an industry that could provide wealth for an Algerian in Algeria.

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