Wine & Winemaking In Ancient Egypt

Celebration & Intoxication

The Ancient Egyptians, like anyone else, loved a great party. The entire calendar year was filled with different celebrations for the various Names of Netjer, throughout the country. Almost any day of the week, a celebration of some sort could be found to honor the Netjeru and to be thankful for the gift of life. One inscription from antiquity says:

" joyful and make merry."

Egyptian people loved to celebrate and loved to commemorate births marriages and religious events. Wealthy Egyptians would routinely invite friends and other important persons to their homes in order to share in great feasts and parties. The wine flowed freely alongside the food which was rich and plentiful, people dressed in their best finery, eating meals seasoned by herbs, both domestic and imported. Guests would sit on cushions on the floor or on chairs eating the food with their fingers and drinking large quantities of wine. (The peasant classes were more inclined to drink beer at their own similar celebrations!) At such parties, the host would perhaps hire entertainers that could consist of storytellers, acrobats, dancers, singers and musicians. During religious festivals such as Opet and other large celebrations, crowds would gather for a "coming forth" when the statue of the God or Goddess went around about the streets in processions. After such appearances feasting consumption of large quantities of wine and beer were often a part of the celebrations.

References Used:                                   

Darby, Ghalioungui, & Grivetti"Food: The Gift of Osiris"
David, A. Rosalie "Hdbk to Life in Ancient Egypt"
Hart, George "Ancient Egypt"

Nicholson, Paul & Shaw, Ian, "Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology"
Steedman, Scott "Pocket Ancient Egypt"
Wilkinson, J. Gardener,"The Ancient Egyptians" (Vol 1)

The Ancient Egyptians enjoyed a fabulous reputation throughout the ancient world for their fine wines. In spite of the very dry climate, Egypt produced some of the finest wines for export in the world. In the First Century BC, Diodorus Siculus praised the quality of the beer of the Egyptians, describing it as being 'barely inferior to wine'. The ancient Egyptians made and consumed red and white wine (irep) Throughout Egypt there are many tomb paintings illustrating the gathering and pressing of grapes and making them into wine. The most notable among them is that of of Nakht in the Luxor (Thebes) area.

Vineyards consisted of vines which were planted and trained on wooden trusses or rafters. These were supported by rows of columns, which divided the vineyards into avenues. These served the purpose of making the harvest of the grapes quite convenient and making them aesthetically pleasing to the Egyptians who were themselves avid gardeners and connoisseurs of natural beauty. The columns were often painted, (the Ancient Egyptian use of color often bordered on the ostentatious!) however, sometimes these supports may have been simple unpainted wooden pillars. They would be the support along the aforementioned poles that would hold the vines that lay over them. Some vines were allowed to grow as standing bushes. These, they tended to keep low and would not have required such an elaborate system of support. Sometimes, too, the vines were made to be formed into a series of bowers. There is no extant evidence that the Ancient Egyptians attached their grape vines to other trees such as the poplar or the elm as the Ancient Romans did. Even today the vintners of Italy will attach their vines on occasion to these trees or sometimes to the white mulberry.

Often vineyards would be located near a water source as well as the building which contained the winepress. Great care was taken to preserve the clusters of grapes from birds. Young boys were employed to scare the birds away using either a sling and rocks or the sound of their voices to drive them off.

When the grapes were gathered, the bunches were carefully placed into baskets which were carried, either on the worker's heads or shoulders or slung upon the backs of servants or on a yoke. These would then would be carried to the winepress. Sometimes monkeys were also trained to assist in harvest of the grapes or other fruit. Paintings in tombs depict monkeys or baboons handing down figs from the sycamore trees to the gardener standing below. When grapes were intended for eating, they were put, like other fruits, into a flat open basket and then covered with palm leaves. Similar baskets can still be found today in Cairo and other Egyptian cities and towns in the bazaars and marketplaces for purchase. In Egypt, grapes were in season in the month of Piphi, which is near the end of June or the beginning of July.

There were many different forms of wine presses. The most simple consisted mainly of a bag, in which the grapes were put and squeezed. This was done by the means of two poles that turned in opposite directions, a vat was then placed beneath it to collect the juices. There were also other types of wine presses. One example of a larger type of wine press was the foot press, such as one that had been found in Lower Egypt. Some of wine presses that have been discovered were highly ornamented and consisted of at least two distinct and separate parts. This was the lower portion or vat and the trough. This is where the workers, usually men with bare feet would crush and stomp the fruit. They would support themselves in this part of the press by means of ropes suspended from the roof. From their great height, some of these may have had an intermediate reservoir which would have probably received the juice on its way to a pipe that was connected to a strainer or column. This devisement is similar to that which was used by the Romans. It is also possible that footpress may also have been used as a first process in the making of the wine and then re-pressed via the twisted bag pressing as has been illustrated in various tomb paintings.

The juice would then be collected and stored for fermentation. Once it was partially fermented, it was then placed into amphorae and left to age. Sometimes the liquid would be heated by fire and sometimes the aging process would have taken several years to be complete. This is not unlike modern wine making practices today. The wine might then be filtered once again or have spices or honey added before finally being transported in amphorae for storage and eventual use.

Previous to pouring in the wine, the Egyptians generally put a specific quantity and type of resin into the amphorae. This would serve to coat and protect the inside of these porous jars. This was believed not only to seal the jar and preserve the wine, but it was thought that this coating with resin would also to improve the flavor of the wine itself.

Amphorae vessels were frequently inscribed on the shoulder or have stamps or mud seals. Often the inscription would have the King's name and regnal year, the particular variety of wine, its vineyard, the vintner and the and the wine's owner. This would have served the same purpose as modern wine labels do today. As a result of such labeling, certain vineyards are known to be especially favored by the Ancient Egyptians. Some of these would have come from the Delta area, the region of the Western Coast and the Oases of Kharga and Dakhla as well as the Kynopolis and Middle Egypt.

Alcohol was at times consumed in vast quantities and as much as we would like to deny it, they did so sometimes to excess. There are many private tombs such as that of Djeserkaraseneb, which are decorated with scenes of banquet guests having consumed a little too much wine and paying the consequences of their overindulgence. In one particular scene, a female guest says;

"Give me eighteen cups of wine, for I want to drink until drunkenness, my inside is like straw."

Such drunkenness was thought of as signifying abundance and wealth. Such indulgence was encouraged as being even positive in nature. The most well known mythical depiction of drunkenness is from the "Destruction of Mankind", whereby the intoxication of the leonine goddess, Sekhmet, prevented the total annihilation of mankind from Her rage by the God Djehuti (Thoth in Greek) by placing mandrake in Her beer in order to make Her drunk, and happy so that She would cease her killing.