El Gouna’s winery, Egypt
Go back five thousand years and the homes of Egypt were full of wine.
The Ancient Egyptians were one of the first civilisations to honour the drink, giving it an important role in ceremonial life. The tombs of the pharaohs were painted with scenes detailing the whole process – from the cultivation of grapes to serving cups in the great temples of the time.
Even the boy king Tutankhamen had terracotta jugs of white wine buried beside him. (This was actually unusual because most wine of the time in Egypt was red.)
Wine in Egypt, though, was washed away with the Islamic conquest of the country about 1500 years ago. The new religion brought with it its own views and wine had no part in the new order.
With its firm stance on alcohol, the rise of Islam led to an end in the production of wine and the nectar of the Ancient Egyptian gods became the scourge of a new one.
But now there is a small resurgence. In a country that is still predominately Muslim, there is not a large demand for wine. However, there are those in Egypt who want to resurrect the long dead tradition of the pharaohs. And, luckily for them, the economics are actually in their favour.
One of the few places in Egypt where wine is now being produced is at the Kouroum of the Nile winery in the Red Sea resort town of El Gouna. Labib Kallas is the winery manager here. Originally from Lebanon, he studied in France but is now trying to put Egyptian wine on the map.
“I see comments online from people who visited the country before in 2003 or so,” he tells me.
“They are talking so badly about Egyptian wine, convincing their friends coming to Egypt not to drink the Egyptian wine. But now I can start to see some good comments.”
Labib takes some credit for that. As he takes me on a tour of the winery here in El Gouna, he explains a bit about the business. Firstly, he tells me how it’s actually financially viable to produce wine in Egypt because the tax structure makes local vintages much more affordable for buyers here.
“The Egyptian government puts a very high custom on imported wines and imported alcohol in general so it’s worth producing local alcohol and local wine just because we are protected from the alcohol coming from abroad.”
And so this leaves him, in many ways, to focus on the quality and not the finances so much.
“For a long time Egypt was not good at producing wine,” he says.
“When they were obliged to produce wine, they produced it the easy way – bringing concentrated juice from Europe, diluting , fermenting, and putting in bottles. We decided to make it in a different vision, to make a real Egyptian wine that reflects the taste of the country, the sun of the country.”
I take a small sip of a glass Labib has handed me and then refuse the spitting bucket (it’s too good to waste!)
“And what you’re tasting now is the fruit of these 13 years work starting in 2001,” he finishes.
The grapes are grown in the Nile delta, further north of El Gouna. They’re then carefully transported to the winery where the long and traditional process of production begins. Every step is carefully managed and there are no shortcuts. I even see some workers putting labels on the bottles by hand at one point.
It has taken many years to get things right – as all good viticulturists know, making the perfect wine means understanding the natural conditions of the vines and Labib had to start from scratch with that because so little had been grown before.
“We are still improving every year but starting in 2008 or 2009, Egyptian wines are up to international standards,” he says proudly.
“Now the proof is we are winning medals on our wine we present to international wine fairs. We haven’t yet reached our ceiling, though.”
The ceiling that Labib and the Kouroum of the Nile winery are aiming for is more about prestige than profits. Egyptian wine will never be an enormous industry in the country and even the limited production that takes places is sure to raise a few eyebrows in such a staunchly Muslim country.
Only a few alcohol production licenses are available in Egypt. Labib tells me one of the reasons one was allowed in El Gouna is because it’s a mainly tourist area. I suspect it’s also partly because the owner of the resort (and winery) is an influential billionaire.
Either way, it’s still an industry that is somewhat in the shadows for the majority of the population and firmly positions itself for foreigners, as Labib explains.
“Our production is 95 per cent dedicated to the touristic sector and 5 per cent to people living in this country – and they might be from different origins. Don’t forget that in the country, part of the population are Christian. So the 5 per cent we sell locally might be for expats living in the country.”
The drink of the Ancient Egyptians may be on the rise again… but not for their descendants yet.