Wine Making in Ancient Egypt
By Menna El-Dorry
Wine has always been a
glorified product in the ancient, as well as the modern, worlds. It was
considered a food due to its nutritious content , and was used in
medicine. Mixed with liquid medication, it provided a cover up to
foul-tasting medications; it also was used as a mild antiseptic , as cough
syrup , as an appetite-restorer , for quelling fevers, dressing wounds ,
and “releasing a child from the belly of a woman ,” i.e for sedating the
woman in birth.
This relates to the
ancient Egyptian myth of the “Destruction of Mankind” where the goddess
Hathor was sent by her father, Re, to destroy a group of conspirators, and
when she became addicted to blood, and could not be stopped from
bloodshed, she was tricked into drinking a red coloured drink instead of
blood , often believed to have been red wine. Wine was also considered the
drink of the gods .
These depictions of the steps of winemaking were never intended as a guideline for winemaking, and many of the artists who drew the scenery probably never witnessed it for themselves, rather blindly copying the scenes from one tomb to another. The scenes drawn are only the major steps of winemaking, many intermediary steps not being depicted at all, and there is also no time indicator. We know from tomb depictions with remaining colours that the Egyptians had white, pink, green, red, and dark blue grapes . Ancient Egyptian wine was not only made of grapes, but fruits such as figs, pomegranates, dates, figs, and palm. The method of making various fruits into wine is not known, but is essentially the same as that of grapes, but sugars were added to help their fermentation .
is a sign of a higher degree of civilisation, as it required abundant
resources and labourers. It required much irrigation, which took up most
of the labourer’s time . Vineyards were generally planted on an elevated
plane, whether natural (like hills) or artificial. Wall paintings show
that vineyards were surrounded by a stone or clay walls, and often had a
large water basin. Vines were trained on trellises which were often
resting upon rows of large decorated columns placed far enough from one
another to allow easy passage of labourers, yet were close enough to
prevent much sunlight entering, threatening the moisture of the crops .
Great care was exercised to protect the grapes from birds , labourers
often scaring them away . The 100 days before the harvest are the most
important; they make the difference between good quality “nefer nefer
nefer ” wine and lesser “nefer” wine .
The exact timing would have varied annually in ancient Egypt, but usually would have occurred in late summer . If tended well, all the grapes would ripen well at the same time . While mostly males are depicted in the scenes, women and children must have participated in this task . Grapes were cut by hand, not knives , and placed in deep wicker baskets carried by men on their heads, shoulders, or balance by a large stick with a basket at each end across the labourer’s shoulders (figure3) .
Scenes show the grapes being covered by vine leaves, foliage or palm leaves on their way to the press probably protecting them form the sun .
Vats were placed on a slight elevation, and were very often covered with a roof that has ropes, which the men held onto as they pressed the grapes with their feet (figures 3 and 4).
Men would hold onto poles at the edges of the vats if there was no roof, the men in the middle holding one another’s hips (figure4). Wine pressing was accompanied by singing and the playing of instruments, the rhythm kept by the females . In the New Kingdom there appears to be no instruments, yet one of the males is often depicted singing, with a song dedicated to the harvest-goddess Renenutet is written above . The wine juice flowed though a drain into smaller vats where the wine was fermented (figure3)
3. Pressing: A second pressing was required to extract the juice remaining juice form the grapes. Placed in an oblong linen slough, wine-lees were squeezed by stretching the linen across a strong wooden frame; with men on one side twist the linen . The squeezed liquid would flow into a pot placed underneath the slough. This required four persons, while a fifth was often depicted horizontally on the slough (figure4). This was probably an artistic amendment or the artists’ lack of wine-pressing knowledge, in reality the fifth man would be standing behind the pressing making sure the wine flowed straight into the trough , in which it was left to ferment . There were several grades of wine must . “Free Run must” was obtained from the grapes’ own weight, and little of this was collected. It produces long lasting very sweet wine . “First Run Must” comes from treading, which is around two-thirds of the total juice, and “Second Run Must” is produced in the additional pressing . There is no indication as to whether different grade juices were mixed. Mixing the different grades would have lead to different kinds of wine, whether red, white, sweet, or dry .
4. Fermentation: Fermentation is converting the sugar in the grapes into alcohol. This occurs when the enzymes in the sugar are exposed to the natural yeast in the skins, stalks, and seeds . The level of alcohol varies with the amount of sugar . Fermentation stops when the alcohol level reaches to around 14% or 15%, the remaining sugar adding sweetness to the wine . Duration of fermentation varies depending on the required consistency. Wine fermented for a few days produced a light final product, while one that is kept for several weeks, possibly heated , produced a very heavy beverage. The stalks, seeds, and skins would have probably been left in the wine must for long periods to give a richer colour and bitterness (especially so for red or “black” grapes) . The difference between red and white wine would not have only varied with the using of white or darker grapes, but whether or not the skins were left in for fermentation . Wine would then be filtered through a piece of linen and bottled.
5. Bottling and Sealing: Wine was poured into short but wide necked jars – or skins if they were to be taken on long journeys . Bottling was done immediately after fermentation. The wine was placed in jars with coned bases (to collect dregs if the wine continues to ferment after it is placed in storage ). Wine would have been sealed a few days before the fermentation reached vinegar. Reeds, straws, and/or pottery would be placed as a stopper, which protected the wine flavour from being affected by the mud used in the final sealing . Using straw to seal the jars or leaving a hole (which was closed before storing) in the stopper let out the carbon dioxide that accumulated during fermentation .
and Storing: After the sealing, the wet mud was stamped with the
information about the wine, or ostraca (limestone, faience, or pottery –
which were handwritten) were used. Information included the regnal year,
name of the vineyard, name of the wine maker and often the quality of the
wine . The wine was inspected by special officers or “inspectors of the
The wine jars were counted by a scribe as they were placed in storage. The jars were placed on wood or stone stands, or resting on the ground in successive rows, with the wine farthest back being the oldest (figure5)
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