English philosopher Francis Bacon once said, “Age appears to be best in four things: Old wood best to burn, old friends to trust, old authors to read and old wine to drink.”
While the saying is both poetic and true, I doubt Bacon ever tried any of the Egyptian wine now available in Cairo. Old or not, most wine brands in Egypt remain less than satisfactory.
In search of better local wine, this reporter stumbled upon an advertisement for a wine-tasting event in Egypt. Slightly confused, I followed the link to the website of Gianaclis Wines in Egypt, where I found information about a wine-tasting tour for those interested in visiting the winery, which is located on the outskirts of Alexandria.
Although booking the tour wasn’t as smooth as my previous experience in Lebanon (where one merely has to show up at the Ksara winery), the rest of my trip with Gianaclis was a positive one.
So, here I am, in a car speeding down the Alex Desert Road, thinking about my little adventure: wine tasting in a country in which advertising for alcoholic products is forbidden and hiding your newly-purchased bottle of wine in a dark bag is a must.
This, however, was not always the case in Egypt.
“It's widely accepted that the ancient civilizations of Egypt were making wine," says master sommelie (wine aficionado) Bryan Dawes. "There is evidence to support this in many artifacts that have been found all over the country.”
“It is believed that the Egyptians spread the art of viticulture westwards through the Mediterranean to Greece, who in turn took it to the Roman civilization," he added. "And from there, it spread throughout Europe.”
Some 130 kilometers later, we left the desert road and headed for the village of Gianaclis.
“They named the place after our winery,” says Ghali Shafik, brand manager for Al-Ahram Beverages Company, who volunteered to join the tour. “As you can see, the road sign carries our name.”
According to Shafik, over a century ago, a Greek entrepreneur named Nestor Gianaclis landed in Egypt and embarked on a quest to find land suitable for growing the noble grapes needed to produce fine wine. This journey lead Gianaclis to Egypt's Nile Delta, where he built his winery.
The winery, however, was soon nationalized.
“When we were privatized again, we didn't have any noble grapes with which to make prime wine anymore,” Shafik told me, as we stood gazing at the numberless bottles of wine on display. “So we imported grapes from Lebanon to make the different wine brands that you know and drink today.”
“I have read reports that the [Gianaclis] winery also purchases fruit from outside the country to supplement its production,” says Dawes. “So we have to question its authenticity as a truly Egyptian product.”
“We started to plant vines in 2004,” says winery production manager Sebastian Boudry. “We now have 500 acres of vines, mainly in Khatatba [near Alexandria] and Luxor. We still import some grapes from Lebanon, but our objective is to develop the Egyptian vineyards.”
Winery management assured Al-Masry Al-Youm that only 2 percent of their wine was made from Lebanese grapes, while the rest was made from pure Egyptian grapes.
“If you look at history, you will find grapes in Egypt for more than 6000 years,” says Boudry. “This means that conditions here are good for grapes–we only have to water them.”
“Wine producing countries are by nature ideally suited to climates in which there is a definite winter season to allow the vines time to rest,” says Dawes. “Wine is produced in hotter climates, but the sitting usually coincides with a cool micro climate usually achieved by planting vineyards at higher altitudes to take advantage of cooler temperatures.”
The winery produces three kinds of wine: standard wine (Obelisk, Omar al-Khayyam); mid-range wine (Chateau, Grand Marqis); and fine wine (Leila, Ayam, Zaman). The wine tasting event focused on the fine wine category, and–despite my relatively limited experience–the better quality of the three fine wines sampled was easily detectable.
“Unfortunately, during nationalization, the quality of the wine deteriorated,” says Boudry. But despite the fact that the winery was built 125 years ago, Boudry adds, “We're still young; we need time to produce fine wine.”
According to Dawes, the reasons for the underdevelopment of the local wine industry are obvious.
“Development has been held back by governments that do not promote the production of alcohol in Islamic states,” he says. “Laws also do not allow direct wine sales by wineries to the public, making wine tourism very difficult–if not downright impossible.”
“We're almost alone in Egypt,” says Boudry. “If I was back in France, I would pick up the phone and ask for advice from the winery beside me. But here it’s more difficult, and the weather is difficult from Morocco to Lebanon.”
Shafik, for his part, laments the ban on the use of conventional media outlets to advertise alcoholic beverages in Egypt. “It’s not a complete ban, as we can advertise in some magazines, but we can’t use television at all,” he says.
What's more, the local market often fails to appreciate new wine brands, regardless of quality. “It is hard to see how a relatively small production unit can establish itself as a serious export enterprise without strong local wine sales,” notes Dawes.
When asked if he expected any changes to the law banning advertisements of alcoholic beverages, Shafik avoided the question by insisting that their marketing strategy relied on word-of-mouth.
“We've managed to get our message out by talking to consumers directly,” he says. “This way, we have found, the message can actually be more powerful than by simply taking out ads in a magazine.”