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Journal Excerpt: The Color of Wine

In the spirit of National Wine Day in the U.S. (25 May), read an excerpt of “The Color of Wine: Southern Wine Producers Respond to Competition from the Algerian Wine Industry in the Early Third Republic” by Elizabeth Heath (French Politics, Culture & Society, Vol. 35, Issue 2).

It is perhaps common knowledge that French grapevines are not French or, rather, not entirely French. Thanks to the malevolent ways of an uninvited immigrant, France’s vines were largely destroyed in the second half of the nineteenth century. This interloper, the microscopic insect Phylloxera vastatrix, first arrived as a stowaway hidden on American grapevines and slowly infiltrated French vineyards, leaving a path of dying plants in its wake. In a valiant effort to save French wine, an international team of scientists devised a scheme to graft French vines onto American rootstalk. The hybrid entity resulting from this scientific intervention was neither entirely French nor entirely American. Instead, the new cultivar was a transnational being firmly rooted in the globalized economy of the late nineteenth century. Its very existence symbolized the power of market integration to transform time-honored traditions, cultures, and forms of production like French vine-tending and winemaking.

Jean de Paleologu (1855-1942), À bas l’intermédiaire, (“Down with the middleman”). Gallica Digital Library.

The story of phylloxera and the reinvention of French wine, though, did not end with the arrival of these triumphal new hybrids. As grafted vines became available, French wine producers reconstituted their vineyards, often drawing upon hard-earned savings or taking on enormous loans. Those who could not afford to replant left the countryside, sometimes moving across the Mediterranean to Algeria, where land was cheap, labor plentiful, and the vines still “French.” In the course of replanting, some producers, namely those in the Midi, opted for high-yield, low-quality grapevines that would quickly compensate for years of lost harvests and debt. They also increased the amount of land they cultivated and lobbied the French government to legalize production techniques, namely fortification and sugaring, which would expedite the return to “normal” wine production. As the new vines matured and bore fruit, French wine production again flourished, eventually outpacing demand. Meanwhile, heightened competition on the international market further depressed wine prices. The resulting crash precipitated a major wine crisis, culminating in the 1907 winegrowers’ revolt in the Midi and a bloody confrontation between the state and a segment of the southern populace. In the decade that followed, these southern wine producers sought to prevent future crises, largely by regulating production and the market.

Elizabeth Heath is an assistant professor of history at Baruch College-CUNY. She is the author of Wine, Sugar, and the Making of Modern France: Global Crisis and the Racialization of French Citizenship, which received the Alf Andrew Heggoy Prize from the French Colonial Historical Society in 2015. She is currently working on a new project that explores the role that empire and colonial commerce played in shaping modern French economic, cultural, and social life.

French Politics, Culture & Society
Executive Editor: Edward Berenson, New York University
Editor: Elisabeth Fink, New York University
French Politics, Culture & Society explores modern and contemporary France from the perspectives of the social sciences, history, and cultural analysis. Learn more.

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