Death. Famine. War. Pestilence. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are a macabre thought indeed, but the stories from our history that tell of grim times are some of the most captivating.
Wine is no different. One of my favorite aspects of wine education involves the untold stories about the grapes, the regions and the people who are behind our favorite bottles of wine—and those stories, quite often, are rather grim.
I was recently asked to host an educational wine-tasting featuring the unknown regions of France—the places beyond Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne. I love exploring this region with people, because the wines and stories are so surprising. However, even I didn’t know just how surprising the entire story was.
While doing my homework, I came across an article titled “The French Wine Riots of 1907.” The what? After 20 years as a sommelier, I’d never heard of the French wine riots of 1907? I needed to know more. I soon discovered that in 1930, Algeria was the largest producer of wine in the world. Algeria. I didn’t know Algeria produced wine commercially, let alone Algeria was once a wine powerhouse. In 1960, Algeria was still the fourth-largest exporter of wine in the world. Mind. Blown.
You may be saying, “This is all great, Katie, but what does this have to do with the undiscovered regions of France?”
After a decade-long battle in the mid-1800s, France colonized Algeria. Right across the Mediterranean lies the sunny and warm shores of Algeria. Vacation, anyone? So the colonists—with a small military to protect the borders—made Algeria their home. They settled in with vine-cuttings and winemaking ambition. Just because you’re in Africa doesn’t mean you go without your wine.
Then, in the 1860s, tragedy struck France: That little louse named phylloxera started to voraciously and indiscriminately feast on the roots of grapevines—to the point that French wine production was in ruin. Families watched generations-old vineyards die right before their eyes. With little hope of recovery and no end in sight, they were faced with imminent poverty.
But wait! They’re making wine in Algeria! It’s estimated that there was a mass exodus into Algeria in the late 1800s of some 50,000 families. Whoa. These ex-pats brought what vine cuttings they could, along with their expertise, and Algeria soon became a thriving wine empire.
However, many winemakers remained in France—devout Frenchmen, men and women who would never leave mother country. Determined to revive their heritage and livelihood, they began to replant. Slowly and surely, they would nurse their vineyards back to health and regain their position as the No. 1 wine-producing region in the world.
Meanwhile, back in Algeria, the warm weather, the mild Mediterranean climate and the long growing season were creating wines with the kind of depth, concentration and power of which French wines were never capable. Marry that with the fact that they were so cheap that they’d make Two-Buck Chuck look spendy, plus they were technically French (or so the label said)—and the market was falling all over itself to get its hands on this “new” French wine! The French government decided to indeed promote these Algerian wines as French so as not to lose their place in the export market to Italy or Spain.
Back in France, the devout Frenchmen who stayed, replanted and started over had re-created vineyards were healthy and producing quality fruit that, in turn, was making damn good wine … that they couldn’t sell. They couldn’t compete pricewise with their French counterparts in Algeria—and by 1900, Algeria was producing 130 million gallons of wine annually.
But here comes the straw that broke the camel’s back: The French governor general to Algeria partnered with a British businessman in 1905 to sell 1.3 million gallons of wine to London wine merchants, with the advertisement declaring that this was French wine, because Algeria was an integral part of France. Oops.
Farmers with torches and pitchforks stormed the streets. How could their government do this to them? How could they hang them out to dry? No, sir—these were men who would not take it anymore. They demanded that the government implement laws that clearly state where these wine came from. Under duress, the government agreed.
Over the next seven years, boundaries would be determined and clearly identified on the wine label, creating what is known as the AOC system (appellation d’origin controlee). It’s probably the single most important part of French wine law—created as a result of the uprising by underrepresented French countrymen who previously had no voice.
Unfortunately for the French, just as Two-Buck Chuck is still a staple in some people’s homes, the allure of cheap and palatable wine was just too good. In 1930, Algeria was producing 500 million gallons of wine a year. Some 30 years later, that number was closer to 300 million, with 280 million of that being exported. That made Algeria the fourth-largest exporter in the world, after France, Italy and Spain.
It took a while, but this great boom eventually ended with an epic bust. A few more crippling French wine laws were passed; a couple of world wars did damage; and the final blow came when France gave Algeria its independence. Buh-bye.
A mass exodus—this time from Algeria back to France—left the African country without enough people to care for the vines or make the wine. Politicians and government agents make lousy winemakers, and the country became predominantly run by Muslims, which means wine is a no-no. Just as quickly as it arrived, the wine business in Algeria all but vanished—and just like that, France regained its crown.
My question is: How is a story like this so unknown? How are we not sharing these epic tales at the dinner table while sipping a wine from the very place where parts of this story happened? This is how we connect with wine as something greater than just a beverage.
Someone get a Hollywood producer on the phone—I’ve got a blockbuster.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with two decades in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.