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As pandemic wilts other industries, Egyptian vineyards flourish

Egyptian grape growers are celebrating a profitable season as the coronavirus pandemic raises demand from European importers.
Egyptian women carry trays full of harvested grapes for making wine on their heads in a vineyard in Abul Motamir, 200 kilometers north of Cairo 19 August 2007. Egyptian wine-growing business is aiming to supply the increased consumption tourism brings taking advantage of weather conditions that favor rapid vine development. AFP PHOTO/CRIS BOURONCLE (Photo credit should read CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP via Getty Images)

Egyptian grape growers are singing in happiness as rising demand for their vines is filling their coffers with cash.

Owners of vineyards in Egypt seem to have struck gold this season with growing demand from European importers. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a game-changer for Egyptian growers of not only grapes but also potatoes, citrus and onions.

The pandemic has been a blessing in disguise for Egyptian agriculture. Exports of grapes, garlic, strawberries, pomegranates and beans rose as much as 30% in 2020, year-on-year, Ahmed al-Attar, head of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Central Administration for Plant Quarantine, said in a Sept. 27 press statement.

Egypt's trade balance deficit narrowed by 8.6% to $3.30 billion in June 2020, down from $3.61 billion in the same month a year earlier.

Egyptian exporters have gotten assistance from the government through the Export Support and Development Fund since 2001. On Sept. 24, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi instructed the government to pay arrears worth 20 billion pounds (around $1.27 billion) to exporters. 

The European Union was the largest importer of Egypt's agricultural exports between September 2019 and June 2020, accounting for 971,000 tons worth $694 million, the General Organization for Import and Export Control said in a statement.

Grape exports rose to $128.3 million in June from $62.8 million in May, according to the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. Only 2% of Egypt's farmland produces grapes.

Mohamed Abdelsalam, the owner of a vineyard in the Nile Delta governorate of Beheira, told Al-Monitor, “Egyptian growers usually export around 120,000 tons of grapes annually of a total harvest of around 1.7 tons. The European Union countries and other European countries like Russia, in addition to China, are the major importers of Egyptian grapes.”

Abdelsalam said the COVID-19 pandemic has had little to no impact on grapes, citing higher than expected demand from European countries.

“Egyptian grape prices are cheap for the European markets. That gives Egypt’s exports an advantage in the European Union member states. Our grape exports are of high quality, especially for distillation processes,” Abdelsalam added, predicting grape exports will exceed 140,000 tons in 2020. The country’s grape exports stood at 113,319 tons in 2019.

Abdelsalam said that a growing world demand will boost Egypt’s vineyards in the long term. “I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that demand will continue to rise in the coming years. We have good vineyards and there is an open market for us in many countries across the world.”

Egyptian grapes have an opportunity to take a bigger slice of the European market as winemakers seek cost-cutting solutions amid hardships caused by the coronavirus.

“Winemaking is all about good raw materials," Vincenza Folgheretti, an Italian-based wine consultant in Livorno, Italy, told Al-Monitor. "The raw materials are essential to get excellent products. Each type of product has its own characteristics. … There are aromatic, semi-aromatic and neutral varieties.”

Folgheretti explained how various kinds of grapes are used by distilleries to produce many brands of wine and spirits. She noted that distillation depends on a wide range of crops in addition to grapes, such as  potatoes, cereals and sugarcane.

“There is also fresh grape marc [the solid remains of pressing] to be fermented or semi-fermented,” she noted.

“Distilleries process high-quality fermented grape marc to extract all the best characteristics for each product. The distilleries can then choose whether to make a single grape product or a blend of several kinds,” she said.

Folgheretti stressed the need for good raw materials to distill high-quality products with “a special identity,” as she put it.

Asked whether there are other crops used in the liquor industry that may benefit Egyptian growers, Folgheretti said, “Of course, distillation is a very large sector. There are fruit spirits such as Williams (pears), Calvados (apples), Kirsch (cherries), Slivovitz (plums), Barak (apricots) and spirits of plants as rum (sugarcane), tequila (agave), cachaca (sugarcane) and vodka (potatoes and cereals).”

“The raw material used in distillation as well as the good taste of the master distiller are fundamental factors for every type of distillate so as to extract not only the intrinsic characteristics of the product, such as aromas and complexity, but also the unique identity it is recognized for,” she explained.


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