While we may still need to decode a wine label in order to understand all of the vital information it’s imparting, we have to admit that the label is a very convenient invention. It’s quite hard to imagine what we’d do if we were uninformed about the wine inside the bottle. Without the label, there’d be no way to identify the grapes used to make the wine, where the wine was made, who made it, or its vintage. It would also be difficult to determine which wine was worth more than another, making trade nearly impossible. Which is exactly why the ancient Egyptians invented the wine label.
From 1550 to 1070 BC Egypt dominated the wine trade. While wine did not originally exist in the region, it made its way to Egypt via trade, and the Egyptians wholeheartedly embraced and improved it. They first introduced standardized amphorae to make the transportation of the wine easier, creating seals of reeds and clay that protected the wine as it traveled across the world.
As Egypt became the center of the wine world, wine became the prestige beverage amongst nobility. High priests and kings fell in love with wine and took to collecting it by the thousands, building massive cellars to store the various wines they had procured. They even brought the wines with them to the afterlife – King Tutankhamen was buried with over 26 amphorae filled with different wines – and they surrounded tombs with highly sought after wines that many thought would benefit them in the next world.
But with so much collecting and trading of wine, there was a small problem: no one knew exactly what wine was inside each amphora, so a labeling system was adopted. The system was incredibly specific, recording the year the wine was made, where it was made, who made it, and even the style of the wine. All of this information was imprinted on the clay amphorae as they dried. On top of these essential facts, the Egyptians would often include notes on the amphorae that included how much wine was inside and whether the wine was good, great or excellent – basically creating the first wine ratings.
Vintage, it seems, was the marking the ancient Egyptians took the most seriously. Based on excavations of Tutankhamen’s tomb, researchers uncovered that only wines from certain years were buried with the king, leading them to believe that even centuries ago, these ancient wine lovers were paying attention to which years were good and which were bad.