Turkish delights: wine on the edge of Asia

Turkey is a country I’ve wanted to visit for a long time, though I had no great expectations of her wines based on the few I’d tasted over recent years. So when the fledgling Wines of Turkey Organisation invited me on a trip to discover some enchanting wines of Turkey” I wasn’t going to say no.

xTurkey is a country of enormous contrasts, and with a unique set of cultural challenges to her wine industry too.In his latest book “Uncorking the Past” Patrick McGovern claims evidence in eastern Anatolia of the oldest wine culture so far discovered: dating back to Neolithic times. Wild grapevines are native to this part of Turkey too – around the headwaters of the River Tigris – and research is now concentrating on hunting down the true ancestor of the modern grapevine.

Yet today this part of Turkey is almost ‘anti-wine’ due to locally strong Islamic and Kurdish influences. Turkey is officially a secular state with alcohol widely consumed (mainly as the local spirit Raki or beer), but, for the more fundamental parts of the population, wine is seen as the worst of all alcoholic evils. Wine was specifically spoken against in the Koran, and of course has strong Christian ritual associations.

Turkey’s vines

In this light, it seems bizarre that two of Turkey’s most exciting red wine grapes are traditionally grown in the east, as both need long hot growing seasons. Bogaskere (literally translates as “throat burner”) is grown around Diyarbakir and Öküzgözü (“Bull’s eye”) around Elazig. Neither of these grapes can be used for more profitable juice or raisins; so can only be sold for wine. Yet there are tales of Islamic growers refusing to sell directly to wineries in case they are seen to be sinning. They have a complicated system of middle-men to get round this, and – ironically – the only way of announcing the start of the harvest is through the loudspeakers of the local minarets.

Sadly, this system does mean loss of direct contact between winemakers and their growers. As a result there is limited comprehension of why on earth the growers should put so much effort into things like low yields and leaf plucking, since these techniques aren’t required for raisins. The third of the most widely planted local reds is Kalecik Karasi, which means “black from the small castle” and makes soft gentle reds or bright, vibrant and delicious roses.

xOn the white front, Turkey has a couple of interesting varieties. Narince (right) is grown around Tokat towards the Black Sea. Its name means “delicate” and this is reflected in its pretty floral aromatics, though it has a good mineral freshness to its wines too. A couple of problems are lurking on the horizon for Narince. First is the dreaded Phylloxera louse which is starting to suck its way through this area (most of Turkey remains free of this scourge), and second is the fact that Narince leaves are preferred for making a favourite local dish of stuffed vine leaves – so much so that vines can be stripped to the point of being unable to photosynthesize enough to ripen their grapes. Emir is another important white, especially in the dramatic moonscape scenery of Cappadocia. It is the only grape to tolerate the high altitude and severe winter cold (not a problem I expected to encounter in Turkey) and some vines here are well over a century old.It’s worth noting that Turkey is the 5th biggest grape grower in the world with around 560,000 hectares but only a tiny proportion goes into wine, so there’s little wine culture. Further challenges to the industry include a significant black market and relatively high taxes, making wine expensive compared to other drinks.

Turkey’s reliance on low cost, all-inclusive tourism demands the cheapest possible wines, often from unofficial sources. A small tasting of typical wines bought from a store was revealing – faced with these as standard fare, I would drink beer too. The good news is that there’s now a small but growing group of commercial wineries, making increasingly exciting wines. Some are quite tiny, almost hobby, wineries and several have popped up since the dismantling of the state alcohol monopoly in 2004.

The producers

For most of the smaller wineries, it’s question of seeking them out in Turkey – look out for Turasan with its young French and very switched-on winemaker, Corvus for its big blended reds and intriguing whites, and Vinkara especially for appealing whites from Narince and Emir. Likya, Idol, Kocabag and Büyülübag also show some promise. Unusually, though it’s the three bigger wineries that are leading the way and making the most exciting wines. A good selection of their wines is available in the UK at tasteturkey.com

xThe renowned French winemaker Stephane Derencourt is consulting at Kavaklidere while day-to-day winemaking is in the hands of the very capable and impressive Asli Odman (left) who trained in France. Huge but wise investment by the family owners into 550 ha of own vineyards is providing really good raw material as well as the opportunity to really learn the full potential of Turkey’s local grapes. As co-owner Ali Basman says “we are lucky to have some special grapes and we have to learn how to produce them better.” They are certainly on the right track with some of country’s most exciting examples of Bogaskere (especially from their Pendore vineyards), Öküzgözü, Kalecik Karasi and even Emir, the first in Turkey to be bottled under screw cap.Kayra was formed in around 2004 after privatisation of the state monopoly, though today it belongs to a US-based private equity group. The emphasis is now on quality over quantity, and education through the Kayra wine school in Istanbul which runs courses and events. The winemaker here is the plain-speaking Irish American Daniel O’Donnell who sums up his philosophy as “winemaking is a series of steps of not f…king up”.

xActually after hair-raising trek into the vineyards in the back of a muddy tractor-trailer, it was quickly clear where he sees making the biggest difference. Kayra has kept and revitalized the former state brand Buzbag, a blend of Bogaskere and Öküzgözü, and added an attractive white version made from Emir and Narince. The Terra range includes a delicious Kalecik Karasi rosé and appealing light red from the same grape, while Öküzgözü and Bogaskere appear as characterful and tasty varietal wines under the regional series label (Daniel O’Donnell, right, complains that “it’s Sisyphean task to get the tannins right on Bogaskere”).Doluca has a history dating back around 80 years, and owner Ahmet Kutman reckons his company’s history parallels Turkish winemaking. His father studied at Geisenheim in 1920s returning about the time Turkey became a republic.

xIn the mid 1930s another trip to Europe saw Amhet (left) importing varieties like Semillon, Cinsaut and Gamay. Ahmet himself studied at UC Davis in California, and his son and daughters are closely involved in the business today. The 1980s saw plenty of investment in equipment, but as quality of grapes declined once growers discovered fertilisers and over cropping, it became clear that owning vineyards was essential. Now Doluca has 350ha in various parts of Turkey including the Gallipoli peninsula and is working hard to understand Turkey’s terroirs. The Sarafin range is mostly well made international varieties, while DLC is a good introduction to local varieties with decent examples of all three local reds. Karma is an exciting concept, blending local with international (Merlot + Bogaskere works particularly well), while the Kav Tugra and Alcitepe vineyard wines should be worth looking out for when they are released.

xOf course, a trip to Turkey wouldn’t be complete with seeing some of highlights of the country itself – the bustling spice bazaar, the serene beauty of the mosques, dramatic castles, and the cultural meeting point of east and west.

A truly fascinating country.