Saturday, January 30, 2016

Egyptian Travels and Wine Tasting

I just got back from 12 spectacular days in Egypt, and I cannot say enough good things about the trip. It was a cruse down the Nile, and now I'm totally sold on river cruising. If you need any recommendations for an Egypt visit, post your questions in the comments!

Ahem...back to wine... Of course I researched wine in Egypt before I went. Egypt has thousands of years of winemaking history, going back to the earliest ancient times. Today, Egypt is a primarily Islamic country, which means many Egyptians drink no alcohol. However, Egypt does have a small wine industry, and I tasted and brought back some samples.

The History of Wine in Egypt

Images from the tomb wall of Kha’emwese in Thebes, c. 1450 BC,
showing winemaking in ancient Egypt.

The knowledge of winemaking came to Egypt from Mesopotamia around 3500 BC – more than 5000 years ago. As early as the Old Kingdom period (2650 - 2152 BC), winemaking scenes were painted and carved on tomb walls. The inscriptions tell us that wine was produced in the northern part of Egypt, the Nile delta, and five different types of wine are mentioned as being desirable to take into the afterlife. A few New Kingdom (1500 - 1000 BC) temples also show grapes and wine as offerings to the gods.

Grapes and wine as offerings to the gods in the Temple of Horus at Edfu.

The average ancient Egyptian drank more beer than wine, which was more of an upper-class beverage. However, wine was important as a drink for pleasure and one of the only medicines available. If used as a medicine, wine was often mixed with herbs, spices, or plant extracts.

Most wine in ancient Egypt was probably red, but newer evidence suggests white wine may have been made as well. Because wine in ancient Egypt was stored in clay jars called amphorae, we can study the wine they drank by analyzing the residue of wine remaining in the jars. This may be a tiny amount which has been absorbed into the porous clay.

When Christianity came to Egypt (around 33 AD or soon afterwards), monasteries were founded and produced wine for communion. Later, the spread of Islam to Egypt (in the 600s AD) greatly reduced the amount of wine produced, since Islam prohibits drinking alcohol. But not all Muslims follow that provision, and some amount of alcohol has always been produced in Egypt and widely available.

Wine in Egypt Today

Egypt's climate is too hot and dry to produce wine in most areas. The Nile delta in northern Egypt receives an average of 1-8 inches of rainfall per year, but the central and southern parts of the country average near zero. Grapes can only be grown in the wetter regions of the delta and near the sea, which moderates the heat.

One of the biggest producers of wine in Egypt is Al Ahram Beverages Company or ABC (owned by Heineken), which produces beer, wine, and spirits. One of their most popular wine brands is Omar Khayyam. For the 12 days I was in Egypt, we drank mainly Omar Khayyam Red. We brought back a bottle of red and a bottle of white (both from the 2013 vintage).

Omar Khayyam Red is made from the grape Bobal, which is a lesser-known variety of Vitis vinifera and originates from Spain. The wine has jammy aromas of raspberry, blackberry, cherry, and cedar. It's dry, with a smoky finish, and moderate levels of acid, tannin, and alcohol (12.5%). This is a fine, everyday sort of wine. It isn't showy and probably wouldn't win awards, but it tastes good, it's well balanced, and it can pair with a wide variety of foods. We drank it and enjoyed it with dinner most nights.

Omar Khayyam White is made from the grape Sultanine Blanche, which is usually a table grape. However, it makes a pretty good wine. It reminded me a bit of a Chenin Blanc or a Chardonnay. It's an old world style, with lots of mineral aromas, lemon, almond, and a bit of oak. It's dry, with high acid, medium body, and a slightly higher perception of alcohol than its actual 12.5%. The Omar Khayyam website describes it as "simple, clean and fresh" and says it "needs to be drunk young." I'd agree with those statements. Like the red, the white was also perfectly fine, but the red was better.

And Beer Too!

Egypt also makes beer, and it's pretty good. The two most popular are Stella (no relation to Stella Artois) and Sakara, both owned by ABC/Heineken. Stella is a light lager, which is extremely refreshing in the heat. Sakara Gold has more flavor and more bitterness. We liked both, but preferred Stella.


Sakara is named after the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Sakara (sometimes spelled Sakkara or Saqqara), which is older than the more famous Pyramids of Giza.

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