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05.23.2005

All About Egyptian Wine

So I just got back from my honeymoon in Egypt, and while it was far from a culinary or wine focused adventure, I did manage to sample the majority (actually nearly all) of the wines produced in Egypt today, simply because I was curious.

But before I get to that, let's talk about the other ways in which I encountered wine in Egypt. Starting with five thousand year old tomb paintings of grape trellises and winemaking, four thousand year old bas relief carvings that listed the best winemakers and the best wine producing areas of Egypt, and of course wine jugs from the same time, still encrusted with tartaric acid crystals after several millennia.

The Egyptians have been making wine since basically forever. They're not the oldest winemaking culture in the world, as the grape vine is not native to Egypt and was probably imported from Canaan (the small region which now encompasses Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, as well as a bit of Turkey) in near prehistoric times, but the Egyptians, via artworks and artifacts like thus I have described, provide the oldest evidence of methodical and deliberate winemaking practices in the world.

We know from such art, artifacts, and documentation that nearly six thousand years ago in Egypt grapes were grown all over, from the Delta to the upper Nile, in walled vineyards. The grapes were harvested at specific times and crushed with relative sophistication, including the catching and distinguishing between free run juice and pressed wine. The juice was sealed in fired clay wine jugs known as amphorae and left to ferment, with small holes for the carbon dioxide to escape, that were later sealed up after fermentation was complete. Wine was stored in these jugs which were labeled with vintage year, region, and even the winemaker's name, as well as the name of any king or god that the wine was meant for, and then filtered before drinking.

Perhaps we can blame the Egyptians for starting the elitist aspects of wine, as it was designated to be the drink of nobles, pharaohs, and gods, with very little for common people. There is evidence that workers were even not allowed to drink wine, though whether this was a class based thing, or just 30th century BC job safety practice is unknown.

According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, today Egypt produces about half a million gallons of wine a year (about as much as England). This is a remarkable amount of wine, especially considering that 75% of Egypt's population are (mostly) non-drinking Muslims.

There are currently only 3 major producers of Egyptian wine today: Gianaclis (which produces the labels Chateau Grand Marquis, Cru des Ptolemees, Rubis d'Egypte, and Omar el Khayam, and which is part of an Egyptian company owned by Heineken), Chateau Des Reves (which actually imports grapes from Lebanon), and Obelisk. The two primary varietals under cultivation are Pinot Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

To the bemusement of some very kind hotel staff in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, one evening I sat down to a half glass of every Egyptian wine in production and tasted my way through what was on offer. I'm sad to report that while Egyptian wine may have been revered throughout the ancient world, either standards have changed or much has been lost through the ages. Some web sites and tour operators charitably describe Egyptian wine as an acquired taste, but mostly, it is just bad, some of it to the point of being undrinkable. In other countries with bigger markets such production would be driven out of business by the competition, but sadly, the market in Egypt is mostly tourists who show up for a few days, buy a bottle with dinner, and then go away, albeit with a bad taste in their mouths. There are very few people, to make the market forces that would drive higher quality in industry.

Here's a rundown of what's currently on offer along the Nile.

NV Obelisk "Aida" Cuvee Brut Sparkling Wine
A light gold color with very fine bubbles, this wine had a promising nose of paraffin and Nivea cold cream with a hint of citrus zest, and in the mouth it was bright and lively with good acid, but the primary flavors were industrial and harsh. Ruth said it tasted "like the smell of Toys-R-Us" -- plasticky and astringent. Score: 5.5. Cost: $30.

2004 Gianaclis "Cru Des Ptolemees" Pinot Blanc
Near colorless in the glass, this wine has an antiseptic nose of melting nylon and acetone. In the mouth it does have some interested cardamom and cinnamon notes, but those are quickly overwhelmed by the taste of black plastic garbage bags which lingers into the finish. Score: 6.5. Cost: $20.

2004 Gianaclis "Chateau Grand Marquis" Pinot Blanc
A straw color with tinges of brown in the glass, this wine has a nose of dried grass and hay with elements of stewed apples. In the mouth it has good acidity with some anise flavors, but it has primarily bitter dry cardboard flavors and an unpleasant finish that is far too long and hot with alcohol. Score: 6. Cost:$10.

2004 Obelisk Pinot Blanc
This wine is a light golden color in the glass with hints of straw, and very light aromas of minerals and parchment. In the mouth it has some fruit (gooseberry?) flavors which are quickly eclipsed with sharp flavors that are somewhere between leather and shoe polish. Score: 6.5. Cost: $10

2004 Gianaclis Rubis d'Egypte Rose
A pretty medium rose color in the glass, this wine has a nose of apples and damp wool. In the mouth it has good acidity with some crabapple flavors mixed with strong alcohol and acetone flavors that careen towards a burning finish. Score: 6/6.5. Cost: $10.

2004 Obelisk "Rosetta" Rose
Dark pink in the glass, this wine has a surprising nose of damp earth and compost. In the mouth it tastes incredibly like the smell of burning damp leaves. Very nearly undrinkable. Score: 4.5/5. Cost: $10.

2004 Gianaclis "Chateau Grand Marquis" Rose
A medium rose color in the glass with hints of orange, this wine has a nose of dried leaves and acetone. In the mouth it has primary flavors of minerals and unripe raspberries, but lacks any acidic backbone and ends up flabby and thin through the finish. Score: 6.5. Cost: $10.

2004 Gianaclis "Omar el Khayam" Cabernet Sauvignon
A medium blood red in the glass, this wine has a nose of dates, prunes and exotic flowers. In the mouth it has a thin body but decent flavors of cedar and strawberry (!) without any varietal characteristics and taper towards a wimpy finish that is hot with alcohol. Score: 6.5/7. Cost: $15.

2004 Obelisk Cabernet Sauvignon
Light ruby in color, this wine smells of old rugs, leather and molasses. In the mouth it is earthy with flavors of wood and leather, and actually has some tannic structure, though thin and watery on the tongue with little to no finish. Score: 6.5/7. Cost: $15.

2003 Gianaclis "Chateau Grand Marquis" Cabernet Sauvignon
A medium ruby color in the glass, this wine had a nose of dried cherries and rum. In the mouth it had an undistinguished mouthfeel and watery flavors of stewed plums and figs that actually carried through to a moderate finish. Score: 7., Cost: $15.

2004 Chateau Des Reves Cabernet Sauvignon
Light garnet in color, this wine has a nose of oak, earth, leather and dried cherries. In the mouth it has good balance with primary flavors of black cherries, with an unfortunate hint of cough syrup, and some dusty tannins that are abruptly overwhelmed by a finish that is slightly on the hot side. This wine was the only one I tasted that had real varietal characteristics. The grapes to make the wine are imported from Lebanon. Score: 7.5. Cost: $20.

Comments (40)

Terry Hughes wrote:
05.23.05 at 5:46 PM

Alder, thank you for the fascinating information. And what dedication you show after the jet lag and with your new marital responsibilities! It's good to have Vinology back.

Regards,

Terry Hughes

Terry Hughes wrote:
05.23.05 at 5:52 PM

BTW, I suspect that I will be able to report somewhat better tasting results after my tour of Turkey at my 60th birthday! Oenologically speaking, though, it still ain't Italy.

Terry

Alder wrote:
05.23.05 at 5:54 PM

Thanks Terry! I only wish that I could have taken pictures in the tombs of the amazing paintings. There was one tomb where the whole ceiling was covered with gorgeous paintings of grape trellises.

Terry Hughes wrote:
05.24.05 at 3:34 AM

Alser, my local (NYC) forays into
Turkish wine haven't been systematic--hard to be taking notes and analysing the stuff with your friends when you're in pre-theatre mode!

Anyway, the summary of summaries so far: the reds can be rustic in the extreme; the whites, pretty nice, balanced, not overoaked. Local varieties are better than the wines they make out of the usual international suspects (Cabernet, Merlot, etc.).

05.24.05 at 4:51 AM

Lots of Pinot Blanc eh? Or from the sounds of it...wines at least labeled as such.

Welcome back again, bro. And congrats on the nuptuals.

05.24.05 at 6:02 AM

I love the site and don't want to sound too snarky, but if "Very nearly undrinkable" rates a 4.5/5 then what would be rated under 4.5? From your description, I would expect this wine to be given a 2 at best.

Alder wrote:
05.24.05 at 6:49 AM

Sam,

Don't worry at all. That sort of question is far from snarky. My 10 point rating scale is similar to either your standard report card scale 50% = F, 60% = D, 70% = C, etc, etc. Or if you like, it is also similar to Bob Parkers scale where a wine gets "50 points for just showing up."

Realistically, you will never see me rate a wine below 5 points, and in general I don't tend to write about low scoring wines anyway unless they are part of a group (e.g. current releases from a winery) that contains high scoring wines or part of a more informative report like this one on Egyptian wines.

Hope that helps.

Christian wrote:
05.24.05 at 7:48 AM

I appreciate you suffering though the selection on our behalf! I think I'll pass on any opportunities to import fine Egyptian wines in the near future... unless Parker starts using Acetone as a positive note.

05.24.05 at 8:38 AM

Alder - again welcome back and congratulations. Fabulous report - it was so good of you to suffer through for us wine geeks. Now for us Egyptian geeks, you'll have to do a whole report on all the food and temples!

Looking forward to seeing you soon!

Geoff Smith wrote:
05.25.05 at 1:37 PM

Congratulations Alder! Here's wishing you and yours all the best.
Did you happen to go to the Lehnert & Landrock store when you were in Cairo?

Cheers,

Geoff

Geoff Smith wrote:
05.26.05 at 10:33 AM

Alder, did you try any Muscat of Alexandria wines?

08.01.05 at 6:52 AM

Hi from Yokohama, Japan !
Your impressive comments about Egyptian wine gave me a great laugh, which I eventually found through the Google search.
I hope you don't mind me translating them into Japanese & quoting on my blog site about Egyptian culture.I still remember my first experience to taste red one, only to convince myself that Egypt is surely oil producing country. Now that was 15 years ago & I needed to update how Egyptian wine is, compared with 5 years ago, when I left there.
In case you can read Japanese, please let me know. I'll be glad to forward my article to you. If not, many thanks for your great comments! I really enjoyed them & my readers will do, too.

Alder wrote:
08.01.05 at 9:19 AM

Arima,

Thanks for your comments. Please do translate them into Japanese if you think your readers will enjoy them. I don't think the wine has gotten better in the 5 years since you left.

Sadly I cannot read Japanese. I lived in Tokyo for almost 2 years, and learned to speak a bit, but reading was too difficult.

Yoroshiku onegaishimasu,

Alder

Arima wrote:
08.09.05 at 9:30 AM

Thank you ,Alder!
Surprised to know you were in Japan!
I'll release the article this week. Delayed as I lingered with Egyptian beer a bit longer than expected.
BTW,compared with 15 years ago, Egyptian wine did improve!
"Omar el Khayam" was certainly the red one I tasted, which was "Absolutely undrinkable"!!

Thanks again & All the best wishes !
Omedetou gozaimasu !

PS: I'm curious about Turkish wine rating of Terry...

Peter wrote:
08.16.05 at 2:38 PM

So..., WHERE can I buy one of these Egyptian wines without travelling there?
I collect and can tell you that many a Californian wine does no better in my chart!
Got a name or address for me to send for a bottle?
Thanks!

Alder wrote:
08.16.05 at 2:48 PM

Peter,

I really have no idea where to start. Your best bet would be to use search engines like http://www.wine-searcher.com or http://froogle.google.com.

Kuan wrote:
09.17.05 at 4:00 AM

I'm sipping a 2004 Obelisk (Cab) right now in my Cairo apartment & can barely contain the mirth from reading your blog to swallow the mouthful. Sad to say, this 2004 Cab is one of the less nauseating examples and actually reasonably palletable. I was astounded to read that Egypt has a long winemaking history. I'm in the condom marketing business here and the first-ever condom use was traced to the Egyptians! BUT like their wine, there's no remnant of current domestic manufacturing or even use of the product. A glorious past indeed.

Alder wrote:
09.17.05 at 9:15 AM

Kuan,

This has got to be one of the funniest comments I think I've ever received. What a job you must have, and no wonder you are driven to drink Egyptian wine. So when are you opening your condom stall at Khan el Kahlili?

Peter wrote:
10.14.05 at 1:46 AM

Fantastic. I live and work in Egypt and I just read your review of Egyptian wine. Expats drink a lot of it...not much choice...but we also wonder about it, wonder how come it is so so, different. I am going to print your review and pin it up at work - well done!

rolf wrote:
01.27.06 at 6:54 AM

Dear Alder,

I am living in Egypt since 7 years and even though in the beginning I was drinking the local wines I have meanwhile stopped drinking local wines and buy any other foreign wine I can get hold of. Being in the hospitality industry and being confronted with guest comments such as yours almost on a daily basis it is difficult to understand that the wine making industry is not willing to listen! I have tried everything singularly and as an industry body with no avail. Perhaps this colum should be posted to Al Ahram Beverages in Cairo and with any luck they will take this more seriously than industry appeals.

Alder wrote:
01.29.06 at 2:08 PM

Rolf,

If you know the e-mail address for Al-Ahram, please feel free to send it to them! Perhaps you can answer a question: why is it that there are very few imported wines available in Egypt? Even at a very fancy U.S. resort chain, there were practically no imported wines on the list. Is this a demand problem or are there laws which make it difficult to import wines from abroad ?

Erik wrote:
02.21.06 at 8:29 PM

As we are currently negotiating prices - not least for wine - for our wedding party in Cairo, we were struggling to come to any conclusion as regards what on earth to serve our guests, vast majority of whom will be christians... did basically the same sampling as you and came to similar conclusions. Chateau de reve was actually quite drinkable, whereas the others were not. Leaning towards serving beer and whisky, albeit that would be slightly on the thuggish side for a cinderella wedding. As regards your question to Rolf - my guess is that taxes are prohibitively high for good import and competition to reach the local market. For all you friends and anti-parkerian globalists: I have the greatest of sympathy in theory, but look at what trade protectionism does to countries like Egypt and Moldova...

Erik wrote:
03.04.06 at 6:37 AM

there is justice! it seems that one can easily bring own wine for a small corking fee, so solution was to contact vinemakers directly. In fact, a couple of the vinemakers seem very eager to hitch up with international winemaking expertise to make their produce better (quite contrary to the local rumour a cab driver told us: that the muslim winemakers intentionally make their wine less tasty so as not to tempt their fellow muslims into sinning).

Cairo - what a fantastic city! chaos everywhere, more conspiracy theories than you would find in the JFK or Illuminati literature! And at the end of the day, beautyful solutions to all problems. But this is straying from the wine content. My apologies, dear Sir.

Sandy wrote:
03.08.06 at 12:18 AM

Hello all,
I was bursting out laughting this morning when I read by chance your article bout egyptian wines. I am living since 3 years in Egypt and suffering from this problem as well! Not even for cooking you can use the "cheap" Obelisk - it will ruin your cooking efforts ;o)!

But as a matter of fact there are two more wines available here (from imported grapes of course): Saray, Syrah grapes from Lebanon, and Cape Bay, Merlot grapes from Southafrica.

Erik... have a try for your wedding! They are - compared to the rest available - really tasty. I wish you and your wife all the best for your future. God bless you and your future family!

And Alder... thank you for that fantastic site!

Robert Eckerlin wrote:
03.15.06 at 6:43 AM

I will not pretend that Egypt produces the best Wines in the World. But I nevertheless feel that these comments are not very fair to the Pinot Blanc of "Grand Marquis". But of course, taste is a very personal affair.

This Year, I spent two weeks in Egypt and drank nearly every evening with my family and with European friends this fruity Pinot Blanc. Those of us who enjoy white wines (i.e. my wife, my sister, two friends of us, and myself) really loved it.

I was quite disapointed that the Duty Free Shop at the Cairo Airport was not selling this wine. I could therefore not bring back a couple of bottles to Switzerland to share them with other friends and to get their feedback.

If anybody knows how I could buy a couple of Bottle of Grand Marquis in Switzerland, or in France or in Germany: this will be wonderful news.

Alder wrote:
03.15.06 at 9:11 AM

Robert,

Thanks for the comments. Unfortunately I don’t know anything about where you might purchase these wines outside of Egypt, but perhaps one of my readers will answer.

erik Eldhagen wrote:
03.19.06 at 7:12 AM

robert and sandy (and Alder of course!) - thanks for heads up and general well wishing - we only sampled about half of what Alder did, and mostly at the lower end, so might have been biased.

Peter wrote:
03.22.06 at 5:14 AM

Hi,

I'm heading to Egypt for a week next Thursday.I'm surprised to read the majority of wines produced in Egypt could substitute as paint remover, I'm sure this not the real case , well more hope its not.

What is a good wine at a reasonable price? What do I'm mean by a reasonable price maybe hotel meal price of 20-25 Euros ?

Hope you can help and thank you

Alder wrote:
03.22.06 at 9:14 AM

Peter,

I'm sad to say that it really _is_ that dismal. You will at least be comforted that none of the Egyptian wines usually cost more than between 10 to 15 euros, but I really do suggest you save your money. If you can find Lebanese wines on the menu anywhere (you must eat at Sabaya while in Cairo where you can drink a nice Lebanese rose) I recommend them. But really, the Egyptian wines are as bad as I describe.

Enjoy your trip !

David wrote:
03.28.06 at 1:14 PM

Thanks for this - we're off to Egypt for a weeks holiday on Satirday and I think I'll head off to the supermarket to pick up a few boxes of Claret and Pinot Grig' to keep the wife sane!

Glad to hear that the beer is ok tho'

Cheers

Charlotte wrote:
04.07.09 at 11:26 PM

I just came back from a trip to Egypt and I must say - I have never in my life had finer wine! Trust me I have had the fortune of tasting some of the very best in the world, from the US to Chile and South Africa to France... NONE is better than what I just tasted in Cairo last week.

Could someone please tell me where I may purchase Egyptian wine in the US? I life in Cali on the Central Coast wine country... Thank you!

Juergen wrote:
04.16.09 at 3:31 AM

Hi I am taking over the F&B department of a Hotel in Egypt and would need informations about wine producers (Found only Ashraf Al shafaki) and importing laws and companies for wine. thx. a lot

Katrina wrote:
05.29.10 at 5:10 PM

I hope you don't mind, but I have just come back from Egypt with near to nothing to blog about wine wise, so have referenced your good self to save face. Though I see my opinion of the ones I tried are similar to yours, not that great. Love the blog, I'll be returning.

Katrina

PSFam wrote:
08.05.10 at 12:19 PM

The commercial wine in Egypt is awful and inconsistent for the most part because of poor quality control. For good wine you need to travel to the Coptic monasteries, where they make wine (eparcha) from raisins for sacramental purposes. The wine taste very similar to cyprian commandaria.

Vic Morales wrote:
11.16.10 at 5:58 PM

Greetings all. Returned to this site after several years remembering how much I laughed but, also, because I am searching for Coptic wine and can't find anything Googling. I recall seeing a pic of a bottle of Coptic wine online with a colorful label bearing Christ's iconic face but can't find it now that I need it. Perhaps, PSFam's mentioning "eparcha" will be a good lead. Btw, I make my own passion fruit & cardamom mead. Thanks.

Vic Morales wrote:
11.16.10 at 6:25 PM

I hurried back briefly because while Googling for "eparcha," which is also referred to as "abarka," I came across the following web site, http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/boozer.htm , which has color pics of the Egyptian wines mentioned here by Alder, although, the descriptions differ to the outer rim of the Bing Bang from his. Maybe a sweet, Greek retsina will be what I imagine to have been the wine of legendary ancient times that passed the lips of Achilles, Megas Alexandros, Cleopatra VII et al. Cheers.

PSFam wrote:
11.16.10 at 11:18 PM

Problem with transliterated words is that you can spell them a dozen ways you could probably also search for ebarka, ebarca, aparka et c.

Anyway that commercially produced abarka is a relatively new and chances are horrible. Though what you described sounds like it was produced in St. Bishoy monastery (though a chance it could be St. Mina's)

Anyway here is the traditional method of producing it for the adventurous from the Coptic Encyclopedia
"The abarkah is prepared from dried grapes or raisins. After being washed with water, they are placed in an earthenware pot and covered with water. The raisins are then left to soak for three days, after which they are taken out and squeezed by hand (never trampled by foot), and the juice is poured into vessels that are not completely filled in order to allow for fermentation. The juice is left for forty days, after which it is fit for sacramental use. The longer the juice is allowed to remain, the better is the wine. Sometimes a little wine from a former brew is added to each bottle of new wine."

Kyri wrote:
03.07.12 at 9:14 AM

I've been to Egypt a fair bit recently and always take some Duty Free wine however when not drinking that I have discovered that there are a few made from South African grapes/vines that are quite drinkable although I have forgotten the name. They are only a little bit dearer and well worth it... From memory Sheherezade was better than average if that helps anybody...

Samantha wrote:
04.10.12 at 3:29 AM

I've just got back from Egypt yesterday - my partner and I are winemakers in South Africa so were keen to try the local wines.

In our opinion skip the Cabernet/Merlot blends - the climate is too fertile and warm for these grapes. Rather try the Shiraz and our favorite the Zanam Tempranillo/Grenache blend. 50 Egyptian pounds retail, about 150-200 in hotels or restaurants.

As far as the whites go the Chateau Grand Marquis Pinot Blanc (Sultanne Blanche) is very drinkable with a Alsace Gerwurtz nose and fresh crisp palate - to be honest in such hot weather anything more full bodied as far as whites go would have been overwhelming. Around 150 Egyptian pounds in restaurants/hotels. I did try a glass of Rose however I cannot remember which wine it was - it was nothing to write home about (but then again how many rose's are? !!)

The Cape Bay wines are made from South African bulk grapes and wine sent to Egypt and made/fermented/bottled there - we didn't bother trying this as the bulk wine in our own country is terrible enough without having to be put through that "pain" on holiday!

If all else fails - have a Sakara or Stella beer - these are fantastic and always reliable! Plus much cheaper in hotels/restaurants about 30 Egyptian Pounds for 500ml.

Enjoy!

Khers wrote:
08.25.12 at 3:59 AM

Did you try Zaman (Gianaclis)? We consider it the most drinkable red wine in Egypt.

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