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Egypt's Winemakers Seek to Revive Ancient Art

It's all part of a now 15-year effort to revive Egypt's small wine industry, which mainly caters to tourists.

An organic wine producer is growing indigenous grapes near famed pharaonic tombs in central Egypt, vintners in the Nile Delta have modernized a long-neglected 19th century winery, and in Cairo's hotels, tourists can now enjoy Egyptian wine described by an expert as "eminently drinkable."

It's all part of a now 15-year effort to revive Egypt's small wine industry, which mainly caters to tourists. The country's two main winemakers benefit from a customs regime that keeps out virtually all imports, but they face the challenge of growing grapes in a searing desert climate and marketing their products in a conservative Muslim country.

In ancient times, Egypt was part of a winemaking tradition spanning the eastern Mediterranean. Tomb paintings show ancient Egyptians crushing grapes and pharaohs sipping wine from goblets. The builders of the pyramids at Giza were given a daily ration of low-alcohol beer — a more salubrious alternative to water from the Nile.

Winemaking fell out of fashion after the 7th century Muslim conquest, but enjoyed a brief revival in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Egypt was under British colonial rule and Cairo was a freewheeling, cosmopolitan city with sizable European, Jewish and Armenian communities.

Kouroum of the Nile, an organic winery based in the Red Sea resort of el-Gouna, has planted 120 acres of Bannati grapes, an indigenous variety used for its premium Beausoleil white wine, in central Egypt.

Labib Kallas, the Lebanese manager of the winery, said the idea was to make an authentic local wine. Growers rely on irrigation and must strike a delicate balance, giving the plants just enough water to survive the desert heat but not so much that it dilutes the flavor of the grapes.

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Given such conditions, Egypt is unlikely to emerge as a top wine producer anytime soon. But Kallas says the winery has succeeded in making an authentic and enjoyable local product.

"Whether we like it or not, it's Egyptian wine," he said. "We were really surprised from the quality we've made, because our challenge from the beginning was just to produce a drinkable wine."