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Sahara Vineyards

by Tom Cannavan, 07/09

The world of wine is ever-expanding. Just 30 or 40 years ago, wines from Chile or New Zealand were almost unknown on UK shelves. Today there are dozens of new and improving regions in some historically unlikely corners of the globe. Wine-pages has tried to cover the frontiers of new wine production, with recent reports on wines emanating from China, Peru and India amongst others.

   Recently, I was contacted by Karim Hwaidak, owner of Sahara Vineyards In Egypt. Karim has planted 30 different grape varieties on an area of 600 acres in the Egyptian desert close to Cairo, with the guidance of Spanish enological and viticultural consultant Professor Jose Lluiz Perez.

Karim grew up in Cairo, the son of an Egyptian father and a German mother. His passion for wine led him to study hotel management at university in Strasbourg, France. This in turn led to a lifetime of collecting wine, and time spent at his family's second home in Tuscany only served to reconfirm his ambitious but deeply-felt desire to establish quality vineyards of his own back home in Egypt.

Karim explains that whilst planting vineyards in the Egyptian desert is challenging, it is also controllable and predictable: "In the desert most of the common obstacles to viticulture do not exist. Desert sand contains no organic matter or nutrients, so we add compost and a precise fertilization program for optimum vine growth. Egypt's desert climate is stable, with substantial differences between day and night temperatures and although it hardly ever rains, drip irrigation allows for perfect control of vine growth. Every year we harvest perfectly ripe grapes in terms of sugar content and skin maturity."

Whilt these condition may seem strange to the farmer of a great Burgundian terroir, where generations have worked and refined little patches of special soil, in fact the idea of farming 'perfect' grapes in a carefully nurtured and controlled desert environment is not so unusual: swathes of vineyard around Mendoza in Argentina would fit that bill.

ambition with tradition

Of course Egypt has a long history of vine growing. There is proof of viticulture in the First Dynasty (from around 3000 BC) with Vitis vinifera probably introduced from Syria and Palestine. But the main vine-growing area was in the Nile Delta, not in the desert, with vines planted in gardens, separated by walls from ordinary fruits and vegetables. The plants were grown using pergola structures and workers provided water and fertilization using pigeon dung.

This wall painting clearly shows not just vines growing on their high pergolas, but the pressing of grapes and the amphorae lined up, ready for vinifying the grapes and storing the wine.

the wines

Karim sent me over the three wines that currently constitute his portfolio, as a foretaste of a winery that in some ways is breaking new ground with its desert position close to Cairo, yet in others is the continuation of a five thousand year lineage. These wines are not currently in the UK, but there is more information at the Sahara Vineyards web site.

Sahara Vineyards Caspar Viognier 2008, Egypt
Sahara Vineyards' biggest production at 5000 cases, this early-picked Viognier has only 12.5% alcohol. The nose has lots of pear-like fruit, with a little hint of something exotic like lychee or Turkish delight. On the palate it is clear and clean; there's not a huge amount of flavour, but then there's no overwhelming alcohol or ripe blowsiness either, with quite crisp apple and juicy melon fruit and a pithy, lemon and grapefruit acidity in the finish. Quite a cleverly made, crisp and food-friendly Viogner this. 86/100

Sahara Vineyards Caspar Chenin Blanc 2008, Egypt
With only 12.5% alchol and harvested in mid-August to retain freshness, around 600 cases of this wine were produced. It has a very nicely expressive Chenin nose, with crisp green apple and a touch of straw, and a sense of minerality. On the palate a tiny smoky quality plays against lots of crisp, tart, apple and lemon zest fruit, with again that sense of minerality in the acidity of the reasonably long finish. A small-scaled, but intelligently made wine of some style. 87/100

Sahara Vineyards Caspar Blanc de Noirs 2008, Egypt
Made from Grenache Noir, around of 1000 cases of this wine were made. There's a hint of mineral smokiness again, with slightly softer, peachier and more floral aromatics than the Chenin. It's all fairly subtle though. On the palate there's an initial hint of sweetness to this wine, which must have a little residual sugar, but the fruit too is very ripe and sweet-edged, the alcohol just noticeable in the dry, quite savoury finish. 85/100.