Winemaking has a long tradition in Egypt dating back to the 3rd millennium BC but declined after the Islamic conquest in the 7th century, and still today their modern wine industry is still relatively small in scale.
The Egyptians are not the oldest winemaking culture in the world, as the grape vine is not native to Egypt - thought to have been imported from Canaan (the small region which now encompasses Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, as well as a bit of Turkey) in near ancient times, but the Egyptians, via artworks and artefacts, provide the oldest evidence of methodical and deliberate winemaking practices in the world. In Egypt, wine played an important role in ancient ceremonial life.
A thriving wine industry developed along the Nile Delta following the introduction of grape cultivation from Levant (where pharaohs had developed a taste) to Egypt around 3000 BC.
In Lavant the domesticated grapevine was already well utilised, with many specialists - farmers, horticulturists, traders and above all vintners would have been involved in the establishment of the developing industry. The Egyptian hieroglyphics showing grape vines trained to run along a trellis or arbour, indicates that the Early Dynastic viniculture was quite sophisticated. Winemaking scenes on tomb walls, and the offering lists that accompanied them, included wine that was definitely produced from deltaic vineyards. By the end of the Old Kingdom, five wines, all probably produced in the Delta, constitute a canonical set of provisions, or fixed ‘menu’ for the afterlife.
Wine in ancient Egypt was predominantly red, though a recent archaeological discovery, has revealed the first ever evidence of white wine in ancient Egypt. Residue from five clay amphorae from Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb (1330 BC) yielded traces of white wine.
During Dynasty 0 - around 3150 B.C. one of the first kings of Egypt, Scorpion I, was buried in a magnificent tomb at Abydos on the middle Nile River - with ivory sceptre and supplies of food and drink to carry with him into the afterlife, with 700 amphora’s containing some 4500 litres of resinated wine. The liquid in the amphora’s had indeed been fermented, according to DNA analysis the residues revealed fragments of wine yeast DNA, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the earliest ever recovered and the likely precursor of the bread and beer yeasts.
From art, artefacts and documents we know that grapes were harvested at specific times and crushed with relative sophistication, including the capturing and distinguishing between free run and pressed wine juice. The juice was sealed in fired clay wine jugs known as amphorae and left to ferment, with small holes to allow carbon dioxide to escape, and were later sealed after fermentation was complete. Wine was stored in these jugs which were labelled with the vintage year, region, and even the winemaker's name, as well as the name of a king or noble person that the wine was meant for, and then filtered before drinking.
There were several types of early Egyptian vineyards. The first grapevines were formed into a formal garden for creating beauty as well as for utility. The second was a work of agriculture and existed in an orchard garden along with fruit trees and vegetables. The third was a formal vineyard as we know today. The 3rd dynasty administrator of northern Egypt, Methen had a garden-vine at his estate and a regular vineyard by itself in another area. In addition to nobles owning vineyards, temples had their own temples estates, and the pharaohs had theirs as well - Rameses III lists 513 vineyards belonging to the temple of Amun-Ra.
The best vineyards were in the Delta, followed by the Fayyum, Memphis, and then southern Egypt. The best site to locate a vineyard was on a hill, but if there wasn't one the Egyptians made an artificially raised plot of land and then planted vines. A wall generally enclosed the area and vegetables and fruit were planted with the grapes. They were watered by hand generally from a water basin.
They used several different ways to grow grape vines. One was to erect two wood pillars with the upper ends forked, and a wooden pole laid over the top where the vines were laid. This type of support also forms a hieroglyph which is used in the words meaning 'garden' - 'wine' and 'vine'.
A second was to train the grape vines to grow on trellis's supported on transverse rafters that rested on columns. Occasionally these columns were carved and painted decoratively. A third way was to make vine pergola's consisting of branches with the ends placed in the ground to form an arch. And lastly, some vines were grown and pruned to make low bushes and which needed no support.
Today Egypt has approx. 66,000ha of planted vines. The most commonly found are Omar Khayyam (very dry red), Cru des Ptolémées (dry white) and Rubis d'Egypt (rosé). Viticulture was revived in 1882, under the leadership of Nestor Gianaclis, a Greek businessman. He created Gianaclis Wines, which reached its peak between 1930 and 1945 - during the Golden Age of Egypt - before being nationalised by Nasser in 1966 and privatised in 1999. Since 2002 Gianaclis Wines, with 120 hectares of vineyards.
Growing grapes in Egypt is a challenge. Average temperatures of 38-40°C and it is not uncommon to reach 48°C during the day. In addition, the country lacks fresh water and reserves are very rare due to a very low average annual rainfall of 80 - 120mm per year, compared to 600 - 800mm for a country like France. Therefore they have to keep drilling deeper and deeper to find groundwater. Today the quality of varietal wines produced still varies greatly - export wines are improving, so do not be surprised if you see an Egyptian label at your favourite wine retailer.