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Wine in Ancient Egypt

By Dr. Michael Poe PhD from:

"In water you see your own face, but in wine the heart of its garden." Ancient Egyptian proverb.

Grapevines and making of wine in Egypt goes back to ancient antiquity. In predynastic and early dynastic periods (3200 bce and before) vineyards existed for the use of Egypt 's rulers and nobles.

There is still considerable speculation about where "vitis vinifera" or the wine grape first originated. Some think it started south of the Caucasus and south of the Caspian sea ; others believe in Egypt and traveled into the Middle East . According to William Younger in his book, 'Gods, Men and Wine' "It is in Egypt where we must go for our fullest knowledge of man's early and deliberate growing of wine." Plutarch said that he was told that Osiris was the first to drink wine and to teach men how to plant the vine.

First dynastic tombs of Abydos record the existence of vineyards including the earliest record of wine cellars and by the time of King Zoser, whose step pyramid was the first pyramid built there existed a partial list of vineyards including the famous vineyard "Horus on the Height of Heaven" which produced wine down into the Greek period.

There were several types of early Egyptian vineyards. The first grapevines incorporated 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 them today. The 3rd dynastic 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 on their temples estates, and the pharaohs had theirs as well; Rameses III lists 513 vineyards belonging to the temple of Amon-Ra.

In orchards grape vines were object of special attention and was one of the gardeners most important jobs. The hieroglyphic sign for vines is used in the writing of the words "orchard" and "gardener." There were also specific jobs with titles like "Master of the Vineyard," and "Master of the Vine-Dresser."

The best vineyards were in the Delta, followed by the Fayyum, Memphis , and then southern Egypt and the oasises. The major sources of information on the production of wine are the wall paintings and reliefs from tombs of the Old Kingdom ( Saqqara ) and the New Kingdom (at Thebes ). The comments and recommendations of classical authors give us insight into the qualities and types of the various wines, vineyards and types.

Many scenes from tombs gives us a fairly accurate picture of the Egyptian vineyards and the techniques of wine production. The best site to locate a vineyard was on a hill, but if there wasn't one than the Egyptians made an artificially raised plot of land and planted the vines there. 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.

There were four 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 way is to train the grape vines to grow on trellis's supported on transverse rafters that rested on columns. Occasionally the columns were carved and painted. A third way was to make vine arbors 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 needed no support.

Production of Wine

When the grapes ripened they were picked by hand and put into large rush baskets. These were carried on the shoulders, on the head, or slung on a yoke.

The baskets of grapes were emptied into vats for crushing. These large vats were large enough to contain up to six men who crushed the grapes with their feet. The grape juice flowed through a hole in the side of the vat into a smaller vat, and then poured into pottery jars where it was fermented.

Secondary pressing was used to separate the rest of the juice form the stems, seeds and skin. The residue was put into a sack and was stretched, either on a frame with a pole at one end or between two poles. The pole was twisted to extract the juice that was then collected into a large vessel.

Fermentation took place in open vessels then the wine was racked and transferred to other jars, being sealed with rush bung-stoppers and covered with mud capsules. Small holes were left near the tops of the caps to allow carbon dioxide that was produced in the secondary fermentation to escape. When fermentation finally stopped the holes were sealed.

Although there is no evidence of the widespread use of this technique, wine was sometimes clarified by being racked from jar to jar. Sometimes it was strained (a form of decanting) before drunk, and occasionally the Egyptians would use a siphon (see illustration) to keep the wine dregs from mixing with the wine to be poured.

Famous Wines

It appeared that ancient Egypt had the equivalent of the French ‘Appellation Controlee' laws. There was a “Royal Sealer of Wine” who overlooked the honest labeling laws, and much of what you find on wine labels today were on the wine labels of ancient Egypt . These included:

  • Name of the Estate
  • Location
  • Type of wine
  • Date of vintage
  • Vintners Name
  • Assessment of Quality

An example of such a wine label is Star of Horus on the Height of Heaven (this vineyard estate started around 2600 bce or the time of Zoser and lasted to 300 ce); Northern Xois District, Chassut Red (Chassut Red was reputed to be not ready to drink until it had aged 100 years!), Sekem-Ka, vintner; very, very fine grade.

Keeping a wine for years to mature was not all that uncommon. In the annex of Tutankhamon's tomb 36 wine jars were found and each bore a docket in heiratic giving the date, place, and vintage of the wine and showing the Aten Domain Vineyard wines to be maintained for at least 21 years.

Something we don't do today is to label the wine with the name of the vintner. It was important in ancient Egypt since if the vintner was famous for producing fine wines and moved to another vineyard, it would be a way that the Egyptian wine buyer could continue buying fine wine. Today we keep track to the movement of vintners through wine magazines and newsletters. We know that many nobles tombs have paintings of specially constructed storehouses in which the wine amphorae were stacked in rows on shelves, giving us a glimpse of the first true wine cellars.

Other famous vineyards include Phoenix Estate on the Horizon of Kemet in the Sile district; the Vineyard Ways of Horus (Lake Menzalah district); Preserver of Kemet (royal estate in the Piramese/Tanis district); Estates on the Western River (on the Canopic branch of the Nile and highly thought of, this wine was found in cellars on the palace of Amenophis II at Tebes and Armana. It seems that it is possible that the ancient Egyptians also cut up Egypt into wine growing districts, much like France does today.

Egyptian wines were graded as good (nfr), twice good (nfr,nfr), three times good (nfr,nfr,nfr)as being the finest. There was also another type of grading; genuine, sweet, merrymaking (not so good), and blended.

Variations of wine from grapes or other products were “enhanced” occasionally by blending other wines with it, or the additions of herbs and other flavorings. There is also the possibility of adding honey to wine, and some wine labels indicated “sweet” wine which could indicate either a specific type of grape that makes sweet wine, such as a Muscat , or the addition of flavorings. And that brings us to one other matter.

Wines from things other than grapes

There are five basic groups of Egyptian wines; those from grapes, dates, palm, pomegranates, and other fruits.

Palm wine was produced by tapping the trunk near its branches and collecting the juice and then fermenting the liquid. Date wine is produced by mashing dates and fermenting the resulting juice.

Pomegranate wine was also produced. I have tasted a bottle of pomegranate wine (of recent vintage), and find that it has a fruity, sweet taste no unlike many ‘blush' wines made today. Meads from honey were also made.

Just how good was the wine of Ancient Egypt ?

The ancient Romans, who had quite a lot of vineyards of their own, also imported wines from Egypt . They considered the vineyards along the Canopic branch of the Nile to have some the best wines. Two writers during the Roman empire record the wine at Mareotis is white, fragrant, thin, but of good quality. They also record that the wine of Sebennytus in the central delta, ranked high in excellence. The Romans also were very impressed with wines grown around the lake Menzalah district, the Tanis district, northern Xois area and in the region of Sile.

Gods and Goddesses of wine

Wine was considered a particularly special offering to any of the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses. But it was Renentet (also called Ernutet or Renen-utet) the goddess of plenty and harvests who invariably had a small shrine near the wine press and vat, as well as on the spout where the juices flows from the vat to the receiving tank. Osiris was also a god of wine as head honoree at the Ouag festival. the hieroglyphics making up the festival name include three wine jars on a table, and a fourth jar being offered by an outstretched hand. The goddess Hathor (Het-hor) was, among other things, the goddess of wine and intoxication.

So while we constantly read of beer being the drink of the people and one of the chief staples of life of the ancient Egyptian, it is wine and the vineyard that holds a special place of honor as a Food of the Gods.

The Old World

By: Eve White

Wine is an integral part of history, documented for thousands of years in the daily lives of commoner and king, sinner and Savior and playing a leading role in art (Bacchus by Caravaggio), literature (Homer's “Odyssey”), music (“Days of Wine & Roses”, Henry Mancini) and religion (Jesus' miracle at Cana turning water into wine).

So where did winemaking begin and how did it progress through centuries of politics, war and religion, beyond borders and countries, in spite of Emperors and conquerors?

Persian fables say wine was discovered by a Princess who had lost favor with the King, so she tried to poison herself by eating spoiled grapes. Instead of dying, she became drunk, fell asleep and awoke to find she was no longer unhappy (imagine that!) and so she continued eating the fermented fruit. With her new demeanor, thanks to the fruit of the vine, she found favor with the King again, (no surprise) who shared the wine with everyone. And, the rest is history.

Of course, no one knows the true origin of wine, though historians believe that wine consumption dates back as far as 6000BC , and it is speculated that much like the fable of the Princess, the first wine was created quite by accident. Physical evidence dates to 5000BC in Mesopotamia, near modern day Iran , where an archeologist discovered what is believed to be the very beginnings of wine in earthenware jars with red residue, uncovered in a mud-brick structure from 7000 years ago.

In Egypt around 2700BC, wine is known to have been a required staple for a royal trip into the after-life and large jugs of wine accompanied many Pharaohs on their journey to the other side. (This brings new meaning to “jug wine” in ancient history.) Excavations throughout Egypt uncovered tomb paintings depicting winemaking scenes and hieroglyphs of sophisticated vineyard techniques, draping or training vines over trellises and arbors, indicating the pharaohs had their own version of the wine country in the Egyptian Delta.

The Bible contains the earliest written documentation of viniculture where Noah planted vineyards to make wine. (Just think… Noah had a vineyard and a boat. He was doing alright!)

Then around 1600BC, Greek civilization advanced wine's popularity throughout Europe with the help of Greek writer Homer, who provided detailed descriptions of wine such as this excerpt. “Here, too, there was a store of fragrant olive oil, while casks of old, well-ripened wine, unblended and fit for a god to drink, were ranged against the wall in case Ulysses should come home again after all.”

In Italy , the cult of Bacchus evolved as a testament to Rome 's fascination with wine, and eventually, everyone wanted it, so the Romans found a way to export it. In 1st century AD, wine was first exported from the Roman Empire to other European nations prompting many to begin growing grapes themselves. Within 200 years of this first exported vino, France slowly emerged as the dominant force in the world wine market.

However, after the fall of the Roman Empire around 450AD, the Dark Ages almost signaled the end of the reign of wine prosperity, (now we know why they called it dark!)and wine may have disappeared forever if not for the beloved Christian monks.

The monks of St. Benedict order (known as the Benedictines) preserved our beloved wine for Holy Sacrament, and meanwhile cultivated some of the finest vineyards in Europe, establishing the legendary regions of Burgundy , Champagne and the Rheingau with their viticulture efforts. The monks were primarily responsible for the preservation of wine-making (and wine drinking) through the Dark Ages, leading the world into a new era of wine appreciation.
About the Author:
Eve White, a native Texan, is a free-lance wine writer. The search for unique wines takes her across the US tasting and writing for "The Wine Press", a monthly newsletter reaching over 10,000 wine lovers. Eve is a wine lover - plain and simple - writing to break the wine barrier and make it a part of everyday life.



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