Wine Making of the Ancient Egyptians

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. Wine production started very early on in the Egyptian civilization. The first evidence of wine brewing appeared on the stoppers of wine jars from the Predynastic and Thinite periods. Large quantities of wine jars were discovered in the tombs of Early Dynastic nobles, signifying an early appreciation for wine, as well as its consumption by the upper classes for the most part. Unlike the common Egyptian’s domestically brewed beer, wine was made exclusively for royalty and elite, being brewed on special large-scale facilities primarily owned by the royal family. Early in Egyptian history, well-to-do nobility only owned vineyards. Wine was commonly associated with divinity, and was believed to have divine qualities and was known as the drink of the gods.

Most of what we know about ancient Egyptian wine making and vintage comes from seal-inscriptions on wine jars, tomb depictions or textual sources, as well as chemical analysis on jars that once had wine. Sealing inscriptions show that each vineyard had its own unique name, and most possessed a religious association. However, the most informative source that showed the steps followed in winemaking, are the tomb paintings. These scenes cover the most important steps starting from the harvesting and treading to the bottling, storing, and even the excessive consumption.

The five steps of the Ancient Egyptian Wine Process include: Harvesting, Treading, Pressing, Fermentation, Bottling and Sealing, and Labeling and Storing.

1. Harvesting: One of the most popular scenes depicted in tombs is that of wine harvesting.

The exact timing would have varied annually in ancient Egypt, but usually would have occurred in late summer. While mostly males are depicted in the scenes, women and children must have participated. Grapes were cut by hand 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 each laborer’s shoulders.

2. Treading: Grapes were placed into large vats after harvesting. These vats were round in shape, while the material with which the vats could have been made is a debated topic. Some speculate that hard stones such as granite or schist seemed to be the material used in vats since they were waterproof, and easy to clean. 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. The traditional method throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East for pressing grapes was by treading underfoot. This is believed to be gentler than a stone press, which crushed the stems and seeds, adding bitterness to the wine. At least four men could fit into the vats, and several tombs paintings show five or six men. 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. Wine pressing was accompanied by singing and the playing of instruments.

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.

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. 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. Bottling was done immediately after fermentation. The wine was placed in jars with coned bases. This shape was belived to have been completed incase the wine continued 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 flavor from being affected by the mud used in the final sealing.

6. Labeling and Storing: After the sealing, the wet mud was stamped with the information about the wine. Information included the year, name of the vineyard, name of the wine maker and often the quality of the wine. As the wine was placed in storage, the wine was inspected by special officers while the wine jars were counted by a scribe. The jars were placed on wood or stone stands, or rested on the ground in successive rows. The oldest wine was placed the farthest away from the opening.


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