Under a blazing sun, men and women, hair hidden under a scarf, gather the clusters of Merlot they will press to produce the “wine of the Pharaohs” we are not in France, but in Egypt, a Muslim country and little known for the quality of its wines.
But since the early 2000s, two Egyptian unique wineries have the crazy idea to change this situation.
“What we did with the Egyptian wine is a beautiful story,” proclaims proudly Labib Kallas, production manager of one of them, Kouroum of the Nile, the other being the Domain Gianaclis .
Ancelot Jean-Baptiste, founder of Wine Explorers Project, the world’s inventory of wine producing countries, believes that we can enjoy today in Egypt a few wines “qualitatively good, nice and fresh,” after decades in which the only state company produced poor quality wine, mocked by the local elite and expatriates.
Upscale restaurants in Cairo have also choice but to offer the Egyptian wine. In a somewhat conservative society, which generally sees alcohol askance, crippling tariffs 3000% prevent the importation of foreign wines.
In late July, Kallas inspects harvest of 170 hectares of vines planted on former desert land north of Cairo.
Since the early 2000s, Kouroum of the Nile and the Gianaclis Domaine want to revive the Egyptian wine importing grape varieties from France, Italy, but also Spain, Merlot, Syrah, Viognier, Vermentino …
The art of viticulture, known Pharaohs 3000 years BC, has indeed developed under British colonization, before falling into disuse with the military coup in 1952 against the monarchy.
“We have planted many vineyards, it is very careful about the quality,” says Sebastian Boudry, French winemaker of Domaine Gianaclis, Abu al-Matamir, a town 170 km northwest of the capital. The company was purchased in 2002 by Heineken after its nationalization in the 60s.
Challenges abound. We must manage the scorching temperatures and offset the almost total absence of rain a sophisticated irrigation systems.
“When it’s over 50 degrees, the vine thinks only survive, not to produce sugars and aromatic substances,” says Boudry, which manages 230 hectares of vineyards north of Cairo.
The efforts seem to have borne fruit: some local wines have won awards internationally and pleasantly fulfill their function. They are “not necessarily of great wines, but wines of immediate pleasure,” says Ancelot, who visited in 2014 at Gianaclis.
“Whites are the most successful. It happens to have wines that are fresh and fruity, kind of exotic fruits, peach, pineapple and a little passion fruit, “said the expert.
At Kouroum of the Nile, which ensures that its grape and wine are organic, the pride of the house is white Beausoleil, only made from a grape variety 100% Egyptian -the Bannati- and rewarded 2016 a silver medal at the World contest of Brussels.
The company produces over two million liters: between 700 000 and 800 000 bottles for individuals, the rest of the two -plus Third being distributed to hotels in cubitainer.
But tourists have almost deserted Egypt in six years in which successive revolts, bloody repressions and jihadist attacks, the wine industry is struggling to absorb these jolts.
“Tourism accounts for over 70% of production, if the tourists do not come back, we will have to consider exporting” concedes Shaker Nawal, marketing director.
Yet it is difficult to imagine that this “niche industry” can compete with Western heavyweights or even the region, such as Lebanon, which produces more than eight million bottles per year and exports the third.
“This will remain a curiosity of wine, do not dream. A Parisian who demand an Egyptian restaurant wine rather than French or Spanish wine, definitely it is curious, “quips Mr Kallas, a Lebanese installed in Egypt.
However he believes that his wine has a future in Asia.
“When I arrived, we were told that there was” the wine headache, “and” the wine fair “but not good wine,” laughs the Ambassador of the Netherlands Gerard Steeghs, cross on the Nile Egyptian friends sipping rosé Omar Khayyam.
“Today, there is always the” wine headache, “but we also have good wine. The production is improving. ”