Tutankhamun's tipple is uncovered by scientists

At the British Museum yesterday, a team of from the University of Barcelona announced the results of research into the wine drinking habits of King Tutankhamun.

They revealed that not only had King Tut been buried with wine jars (amphorae), but that he preferred red to white. And not just any old Nile Delta plonk, but the finest vintage red, if you please.

Ancient Egyptians believed in the good afterlife, which is why King Tut was buried with his wines. "Wine jars were placed in tombs as funerary meals," says Maria Rosa Guasch-Jane, a master in Egyptology at the University of Barcelona.

"The New Kingdom wine jars were labelled with product, year, source and even the name of the vine grower but they did not mention the colour of the wines they contained." Year 5, it seems ,was a good vintage, one clearly destined for laying down. One of the samples came from an amphora in King Tut's tomb with the inscription: "Year 5. Wine of the House-of-Tutankhamun Ruler-of-the- Southern-On, l.p.h (in) the Western River. By the chief vintner Khaa".

Funded by the non profit-making Foundation for the Culture of Wine, created by bodegas Vega Sicilia, Codorniu, Rioja Alta, Julian Chivite and Marques de Riscal, the Spanish researchers were given permission to analyse trace residues taken from the scrapings of three jars owned by the British Museum and three from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (two of them from Tutankhamun's collection).

Putting the residues from one of the jars under the microscope, Ms Guasch-Jane and Rosa M. Lamuela-Raventos, a professor of nutrition and food science, developed the first technique capable of determining the colour of wine stored in ancient amphorae.

Using liquid chromatography with mass spectrometry, they found traces of tartaric acid, a compound with few natural sources other than grapes but that did not tell them whether the wine was red or white.

They then tested part of a wine jar for the chemical that imparts colour to red wine, malvidin-3-glucoside. Direct testing for the substance is not feasible, so the scientists exposed the sample to a basic solution that causes malvidin to break down into syringic acid, which is detectable.

"This method led us for the first time not only to identify the presence of wine but also to reveal the red grape origin of the wine contained in a jar belonging to the tomb of King Tut|, said Ms Guasch-Jané.

In 1994, a molecular archaeologist, Patrick McGovern, discovered traces of tartaric acid in residues from jars which date back to 5400BC from the site of Hajii Firuz Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of Northern Iran.

That remains the earliest conclusive evidence of wine production, although the earliest details of wine cultivation come from ancient Egypt.

Tomb murals dating to 2600BC depict vines manured with pigeon droppings and children being used as scarecrows.

Scenes also show the fermentation process took place in amphorae, which were covered with cloth or leather and sealed with Nile mud. Clearly the Egyptians knew a thing or two about wine.

According to Stephen Cipes, whose Canadian winery Summerhill is constructed in the form of the Great Pyramid of Giza, wines matured in the "sacred geometry" of a pyramid taste better. For King Tut's sake, let's hope so.

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