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Wine in the afterlife

Published:  23 July, 2008

King Tutankhamun's tipple of choice was red wine, a team of Spanish scientists has revealed, but not just any old Egyptian plonk: it had to be the best Western River red from Year Five' made by chief vintner Khaa.

An early wine label from an amphora found in Tutankhamun's tomb reveals that the king, who died in 1323bc, favoured a style of wine known as shedeh (thought to be a sweet, heat-treated wine similar in style to present-day Madeira). This was made by his chief winemaker from grapes grown in the celebrated Egyptian wine-growing region Western River, a branch of the Nile that is now desert land. The only thing not mentioned on the label is the colour of the wine that was so highly prized by the king that it was chosen to accompany him on his final journey.

Research chemist and Egyptologist Maria Rosa Guasch-Jan found the answer by inventing a new technique that enabled her to establish the colour of the wine that has been stored in amphorae for many thousands of years.

After confirming that the solid, dark residue on the base of amphorae owned by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and The British Museum in London was, in fact, of grape origin - by analysing for tartaric acid, which is only found in grapes and the African baobab tree - Guasch-Jan then tested for a colour component found only in red wines - malvidin-3-glucoside. As red wine ages, this breaks down to form syringic acid, and it is this component that was found in the sample from King Tut's tomb, proving conclusively that the wine was red rather than white.

This is the first time that scientists have been able to establish the colour of a wine of this age. In 1994, American molecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern (author of the recently published book Ancient Wine) established that the Neolithic period (8500bc-4000bc), when humans established the first villages and cultivated crops, was extremely significant for wine production. The earliest evidence of wine production in Egypt dates from 4000bc. McGovern identified traces of tartaric acid and yeast in amphorae found in the Zagros Mountains of northern Iran dating from 5400bc, but he was unable to determine the colour of the wine.

There were cultural indications, however, that the wine found in Tutankhamun's tomb would prove to be red. Ancient mythology suggests that red wine was considered superior and used in temples for offerings,' explains Guasch-Jan. The ancient Egyptians believed in properly equipping the body for the afterlife, so the king's favourite wine and food would be left in the tomb. More than 100 jars of wine were buried with King Scorpion I in 3150bc. Red wine in particular was associated with resurrection, which might be another reason for its presence in royal tombs.

Guasch-Jan studied chemistry before working towards a masters in Egyptology. She began her research into the colour of King Tut's wine four years ago, under the supervision of Rosa Maria Lamuela-Ravents, professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Barcelona.

The research was funded by the Spanish Foundation for the Culture of Wines, a non-profit organisation set up in 2000 by five of the country's most prestigious wineries - La Rioja Alta, Vega Sicilia, Codornu, Julian Chivite and Marqus de Riscal (which together have 10,000 years of winemaking experience) - in conjunction with the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The aim of the organisation is to educate consumers on the history and culture of wine and introduce the world to new-generation' Spanish wines. It has held tastings of world-leading wines such as Ptrus, Chteau Latour and Domaine de la Romane-Conti' and concentrates on promoting global wine education. The foundation intends to sponsor further research into topics that relate to the culture and history of wines. Wine is about more than alcohol; it has a specific cultural heritage,' said Guillermo de Aranzabal Agudo, chief executive of La Rioja Alta.

The results of the research were unveiled at an event sponsored by the foundation and Wines from Spain at the British Museum on 26 October. The full results of the research will be published in the academic journal Analytical Chemistry.