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.