Egypt: the vineyards behind the pyramids27th June, 2014 by Jean-Baptiste Ancelot
Egypt; a beautiful stranger and a country of a thousand secrets – land of sphinxes, pyramids, pharaohs and hieroglyphs. You who made us dream since our childhood. How did you become this way ? Where in lies your greatness and your soul?
Egypt is a country which has long had wine, but only has a few hectares of vines which are located halfway between Cairo and Alexandria. Vines have been cultivated in Egypt since 3,000 BC, more than 2,000 years before the appearance of vine growing in France! Far from the splendour of the Greco-Roman times, 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, has been owned by Al-Ahram Beverages Company (Heineken group). And it’s great, we have an appointment at Gianaclis for a winery tour. Let’s go!
Drought, a plague for wine in Egypt
Growing grapes in Egypt is a real challenge. Average temperatures are around 38 -40°C and it is not uncommon to reach 48°C during the day. This has the effect of blocking the phenolic ripening of the grapes*, preventing them of ripening properly. In addition, the country lacks fresh water and reserves are very rare due to a very low average annual rainfall of 80 – 120 mm per year, compared to 600 – 800mm for a country like France. Therefore they have to keep drilling deeper and deeper to find groundwater.
But the only water to be found today in the lower basement layers is fossil water, which has a very high salt content. “On the long term using this water for irrigation is detrimental for the quality of top soils”, explained Sebastian Boudry, the winemaker at Gianaclis. But rest assured, the vineyards are beautiful and the grapes are good ! Egyptians take care of their vines attentively, they use palm trees to protect it from the wind and spray only in cases of extreme necessity. Ironically – or by a nod of nature – we began our walk in the vineyard under a rain shower. A deluge fell on us! We had to return early the next day to take some pictures…but what an improbable and magical moment.
Gianaclis, the expertise of a strong group
We set off the next day for the winery, located two hours driving from the vineyard. Here we were at the production site of Al-Ahram Beverages Company, a place at the forefront of technology, where a centrifuge, helping to clarify musts, is standing near three presses outdoors. This was the first centrifuge we encountered on our African trip. Besides the 60,000 HL of wine produced every year, they also distill neutral alcohol for vodka on a large-scale. Sebastian Boudry, who welcomed us, told us that the grapes, which are manually harvested from late June (for the first whites) until the end of August, are transported to the winery in refrigerated trucks, a necessity due to the heat!
Wwhen the full tanks are rapidly cooled with chilled water in closed loop systems to reduce the temperature of the grapes, it creates a cellar straight out of the mist that shows us its beauty.
The cellar is wonderful and a tour lead to an invitation to taste the wines. But before serious work commenced, we shared a delicious meal with our hosts; vegetables, spicy rice, chickpeas cream, marinated beef. Perfect to gain strength before tasting the wines.
Tasting of Gianaclis Wines’ range
In addition to the Domaine de Gianaclis wines, the winery also produce wines from imported grapes from South Africa, France and Lebanon. We focused our tasting on wines “made in Egypt”.
Valmont Rosé NM a sparkling wine made from Tempranillo and Sangiovese. Fresh and pleasant on the palate with aromas of strawberry and redcurrant.
Domaine de Gianaclis, Ayam blanc 2012, a white blend of Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Nose of exotic fruit, dominated by notes of white fruit. Egyptian premium white wine.
Domaine de Gianaclis, Ayam rouge 2011, a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carignan. Nose a bit closed. Nice spices on the nose with a touch of earth. Round mouth with elegant tannins and blackcurrant flavours.
Omar Kayyam rouge 2013, 100% Bobal (red grape variety widely used in Spain), with a nose of plum and cherry, soft tannins on the palate and a nice freshness.
Tourism, the engine in the sale of wine
Close to the Red Sea, El Gouna is the area where we found the second Egyptian winery, EgyBev Wadi. 75 hectares of vineyards owned by a passionate André Hadji-Thomas with its lovely organic cuvée, Les Jardins du Nil. It represents about 15% of the country’s production. Tourism – with the lure of foreign currencies – remains the bulk of Egyptian wine sales and proclamations of principle on the prohibition of wine does not overshadow the production thereof, although alcohol remains a sensitive subject in Egypt.
So here are a few explorer’s suggestions: go for a walk in the souk in Cairo, breathe leather, spices and shisha smells. Sip a coffee at El-Fishawy, one of the oldest cafes in the city and probably the most famous in the Arab world. Lose yourself in the desert, in the middle of the pyramids. Egypt is an inviting country for traveling and will always be one of the most brilliant civilisations in History.
* The phenolics components in wine, especially anthocyanins and tannins, originates from the solid parts of the grape (seeds and skins). They have many properties : anthocyanins are responsible for wine color and tannins are responsible for taste properties that give wine its characteristic astringency.