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The Greek island of Santorini is one of the world’s mysteries. Maybe it was the Atlantis of ancient civilizations; maybe it had an impact on the demise of the Minoan civilization. But there is no doubt about its breathtaking beauty. A dramatic volcanic eruption in about 1530 B.C. blew a great big hole in the middle of the island, forming a sea-filled crater, or caldera. On our first evening, we dined at the Santorini cooperative, Santo, and looked out on the sun setting over the caldera. Words could not do justice to the view.
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The next morning we saw our first vineyards, which are quite unlike any vineyards I have seen anywhere else in the world. The viticulture is so extreme that it has to be seen to be believed. The vines need protection from fierce wind and harsh sunshine, and so they are pruned in the shape of protective baskets in a small hollow. The soil is volcanic ash, with some pumice and other stones, but there is no organic matter, and it is astonishing that anything grows at all. There is no irrigation — the vines depend on sea mist for moisture and can also tap some water retained by the pumice stones after occasional rains. Inevitably, yields are tiny. The island is immune to the destructive insect phylloxera, for if there is no clay, there can be no phylloxera. Actual replanting is rare. When a vine needs replacing, it is “decapitated” and will regenerate from the existing deep root system. This can be done about every 80 years. When it is finally dying, after about 400 years, growers practice the system of provinage, taking a shoot and placing it in the ground so that it will grow roots.
There are very few conventional vineyards. The key exception is Sigalas, where the winemakers argue the case for more traditional viticulture, giving each vine a pole to help it withstand the wind. More leaves also help shade the grapes from the intense sunlight. In the 1980s, many vines were pulled up in favor of building accommodations for tourists, who provide the island’s main source of revenue. But in recent years, although the vineyard area has not changed, the average age of the winegrowers has decreased significantly, so the future of Santorini wine is more secure.
Assyrtiko elevates on Santorini
The principal white grape variety of Santorini is Assyrtiko, which is also found in northern Greece, but on the island it takes on a fabulously original mineral character.
We tasted the wines of the eight main makers, including the cooperative that accounts for two-thirds of the production. The most typical were the mineral flavors of Assyrtiko, from producers such as Gaia, Hatzidakis and Argyros, with a wonderful depth of flavor. But there are also other grape varieties, white Athiri and Aidani, which can be blended with Assyrtiko and make for riper flavors, and gutsy red Mavrotragano, with some peppery fruit.
Santorini also produces dessert wine, vinsanto, a naturally sweet wine from dried grapes. Drying in the sun would be too brutal, so they are dried under cover and then the juice is put in a barrel and ignored for 10 years or so. Rediscovered, the result is something absolutely delicious, rich and concentrated with the flavors of dates and figs.
Top photo: Island of Santorini. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Gone are the days when Greek wine was synonymous with the pine resin-flavoured retsina. Today, Greece is in the process of developing its true potential. In the course of a whirlwind week in Greece with 19 other Masters of wine, we found an enormous amount to explore and discover.
Greece has over 500 indigenous grape varieties, so a day did not go past without meeting a new one. International varieties such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have a much greater hold in the north of the country, whereas on the islands they only represent 5% of the production.
While most of the indigenous grapes will never gain international recognition, there are a few that are worth remembering, such as Moschofilero, with its lightly muscaty flavours, and Robola from Cephalonia, with delicate sappy flavours.
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We tasted some 390 wines from 92 estates, and Alpha Estate really stood out for its excellence and innovative work. In some ways, Alpha is very typical of something that is happening all over Greece, one man with a broader vision developing his own estate.
Angelos Iatrides bought his first vineyards in 1995. He had studied in Bordeaux and worked in Madiran, and then back in Greece he helped create Ampelooiniki, a highly successful research station and consultancy business.
But Angelos really wanted to do his own thing, and with two other partners, chose a region that he felt was ripe for regeneration. This was the appellation of Amyndeon, not too far from the city of Thessaloniki. The Vitsi and Voros mountains are close by, and Bulgaria is in the near distance. Amyndeon, which has had vineyards since 300 B.C., is quite a small appellation, with seven producers, of whom Boutari and the cooperative are the biggest. Altogether, Angelos has 65 hectares of vineyards, including four hectares of old bush vines, which were planted in 1921. The vineyards lie on a plateau, between 570 and 700 meters (1,870 to 2,296 feet) to in altitude and the soil is sandy with limestone bedrock. The summers are so dry that irrigation is essential in August.
Angelos presented his wines with fluency and perception. As the tasting demonstrated, his methods encapsulate the best of modern Greek wine making, representing a break with the traditional and, it has to be said, the pretty primitive methods of the past. Work in the vineyard is paramount to quality and in the cellar oak aging is vital to the quality of the wines and meticulous attention is paid to detail.
2009 Axia Red is 50% Syrah and 50% Xinomavro, so a blend of Greece and the international world, with 12 months aging in oak. The bordelais influence is inevitably strong in Angelos’ winemaking. Quite a smoky peppery nose, with rounded ripe fruit, balanced by both tannin and acidity. The Syrah was planted in 1995, an experimental vineyard in conjunction with the university of Suze la Rousse in the Rhone Valley. Angelos considers that it goes well with Xinomavro, and I couldn’t disagree.
2008 Xinomavro, PDO Amyndeon, from a single vineyard called Hedgehog
Medium colour. Hints of aniseed on the nose. Quite firm dry fruit with a touch of sweetness on the finish, demonstrating the suggestion that Xinomavro is a cross of flavours between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. Medium weight. 2008 was a riper vintage than 2009.
2009 Xinomavro, PDO Amynteon single vineyard Hedgehog
Quite a deep young colour. A smoky, chocolaty nose, and again with a hint of aniseed. Some dry fruit, with the elegance of a fine Nebbiolo. Quite smoky with intriguing nuances and textured layers. A lovely glass of wine.
2006 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines
From the vineyard planted in 1921. Deep colour, showing very little age. Quite ripe chocolate notes on the nose and a supple rounded, ripe palate, with a balancing tannic streak. Good depth of flavour and finely crafted. Angelos explained that there is no risk of phylloxera as the soil is predominantly sandy. He uses horizontal fermenters which avoid extracting phenolics from the grape pips, and he observed that canopy management is important for ripening the grapes, saying, “You can’t just assume that with a warm climate, the grapes will ripen automatically.”
2007 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines
“Reserve” for Angelos usually implies two years aging in wood, but this was only given 12 months. It depends on the vintage. And he uses steamed rather than toasted barrels. The colour was beginning to evolve. Rounded nose with a hint of aniseed. An elegant palate with supple tannins and ripe perfumed fruit. A lovely balance and a long finish.
2008 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines
Medium colour, but not showing any age. Quite a firm dry palate, with some fruit. Still very youthful, with a certain freshness and some acidity on the finish, as well as tannin.
2006 Alpha Estate Red Blend
60% Syrah, 20% Merlot and 20% Xinomavro. Deep young colour, not showing any signs of age. Quite a dense ripe chocolaty nose, and on the palate, ripe and rounded, with some dense fruit, youthful tannin and an edge of acidity. Syrah provides the structure; Xinomavro the power and the aromatic complexity, and Merlot rounds out the palate. Angelos has Syrah, “because I like it” and Merlot is the link between Syrah and Xinomavro.
2007 Alpha Estate Red Blend
Deep colour. Quite a rounded smoky nose, and on the palate rounded, dense and ripe with some firm tannins. Youthful with plenty of potential. Yields are pretty low, with 28-35 hl/ha for red grapes and 42-45 hl/ha for whites.
2008 Alpha Estate Red Blend
The same blend Syrah, Merlot and Xinomavro. Deep colour. A certain earthy smokiness; a slightly sweet palate, with an earthy note and some cassis and a tannic streak. Not as harmonious as the two previous vintages, but probably needs some bottle age. One third was aged in new barrels.
2009 Utopia 95% Tannat, 5% Xinomavro. PGI Florina
It was a surprise to find Tannat in northern Greece, but there is a very simple explanation. After studying in Bordeaux, Angelos spent a vintage with Alain Brumont, at Château Montus, the leading Madiran estate, where Tannat is at its most typical. Deep young colour. The nose and palate were firm and structured, with some black fruit. Very characteristic of the grape variety.
2006 Alpha One, PGI Florina
A pure Tannat. Angelos was evidently very impressed by his stay in Madiran. Very deep young colour. Smokey chocolaty nose. Quite youthful, dense and intense. Firm black fruit on the palate, with a tannic edge. Youthful with plenty of potential to develop.
And we finished our tasting with a couple of white wines:
2012 Sauvignon blanc
Angelos wrote his thesis on the aromatic profile of Sauvignon and has worked with Denis Dubordieu, one of the leading proponents of the grape variety in Bordeaux. This wine had some lovely varietal character, with pithy notes on the nose, and mineral fruit with some texture and weight on the palate.
2012 Axia, PGI Florina Malagouzia
Light colour; quite delicate nose, with rounded fruit, acidity and balance. Elegant with some texture, and some intriguing nuances. It was a lovely glass of wine to finish a tasting that really illustrated the enormous potential of Greece for both indigenous and international grape varieties and showed just what can be achieved with a combination of energy and talent.
Top photo: A small fortress on an islet in the city of Nafplio. Credit: Rosemary George
The landscape of the south of England is changing, very gently and almost imperceptibly, for hillsides that were once fields of grass or wheat are now being planted with grapevines. Only the other day, I turned a corner on a road I once knew well in West Sussex, close to the South Downs, and where there had once been sheep grazing, there is now a vast expanse of vines.
The last few years have seen a soaring interest in the potential for English wine, and in particular for sparkling wine. Quite simply, the vineyard area has doubled since 2004, when there were 761 hectares (1,880 acres). Official figures for 2010 give 1,324 hectares (3,271 acres), but some sources believe it to be nearer 1,500 hectares (3,706 acres). And almost without exception, the new plantings are of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the three classic grapes of Champagne.
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How things have changed. Suddenly “England” on a wine label is to be taken seriously, and English sparkling wine is something to be proud of, with a flavor and quality not dissimilar to Champagne. You find some elegant creaminess and subtle nuances and depth of flavor.
The pioneers of what you might call the new wave of English wine, and of sparkling wine, were an American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss, who planted a vineyard at Nyetimber in West Sussex. Their first vintage was 1992, made with the help of a champenois consultant, Jean-Manuel Jacquinot, from the eponymous Champagne house. I asked the Mosses why they had chosen England, rather than California. After all, they came from Chicago, where they had just sold a pharmaceutical business. Stuart’s answer was quite simple: California would be too easy. England was more of a challenge!
Following close behind Nyetimber was Mike Roberts at Ridgeview. He sold an IT business and then looked for something else to do. Planting vines was the answer, on a site outside the village of Ditchling at the foot of the South Downs. Mike has given Ridgeview a sense of direction and commitment to quality, with a range of wines that are named after districts of London, such as Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Grosvenor and Fitzrovia. He is also a firm advocate of the name of Merrett for English sparkling wine. Dr. Christopher Merrett presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1662, a few years before Dom Pérignon began his work at the abbey of Hautvilliers, in which he explained the process for the deliberate second fermentation. Wine arrived in London from Champagne in barrel, and the “wine coopers” added sugar and molasses to make their wine “brisk and sparkling.” It all hinged on the fact that in England they used coal, which burns hotter than charcoal, to fire glass. As a result, English glass was stronger, able to withstand the presence of carbon dioxide in the bottle.
Numerous others have followed in the footsteps of Nyetimber and Ridgeview. You will now find names such as Gusborne, Coates & Seely, Balfour Brut, Wiston, Jenkyn Place, Camel Valley and Breaky Bottom, not to mention a vineyard in Windsor Great Park, planted with royal blessing. Most, but not all, are in the southeast of England, where the climate is warmer and drier than the rest of the country. And there are soil similarities with Champagne. The South Downs and the vineyards of Champagne and also Chablis and Sancerre are all part of the Parisian basin, with the geological term Kimmeridgian, taking its name from a Dorset village.
The longer ripening time is a key difference between English sparkling wine and Champagne. Bud break usually comes a week earlier than in Champagne, and the harvest in England usually begins in early October, in sharp contrast to Champagne, where it usually takes place in early September. This means that the vegetal cycle in England is three to four weeks longer, and the grapes are riper and fruitier, and the wines are possibly richer and less acidic.
The future for English wines looks sparkling, and with time and experience, they will develop greater complexity. After all, the Champagne of Dom Pérignon is more than 300 years old, whereas the modern era of English sparkling wine, if you take it from Nyetimber’s very first vintage in 1992, only totals two decades.
Top photo: Nyetimber’s vineyard in West Sussex. Courtesy of Nyetimber.
Soave is a victim of its own success. It’s one of the best known Italian white wines, a familiar name that features on every wine list and consequently is often taken for granted, without any real appreciation of its true quality. However, the best Soave is a wine of great character and individuality, whose quality has improved enormously over the past decade or so.
The village of Soave is a delight to visit. You fly into Verona, the magical city of Romeo and Juliet, and Soave is a short drive away. It is dominated by the ruins of a medieval castle and its old walls remain intact, with a gate on each side. There are cheerful cafes and restaurants and an enoteca with an extensive selection of bottles from the best wine growers. The vineyards, which lie to the north of the village, come almost up to its walls. They rise dramatically to some 400 meters (1,312 feet) on hillsides of limestone or basalt, on a row of extinct volcanoes.
The best vineyards are recognized as Soave Classico, and form the heart of the DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata, or controlled designation of origin), which was created in 1968. However, about 10 years ago, local bureaucracy decided that Soave would benefit from lower yields and higher alcohol levels, and the DOCG (which is “guaranteed” as well as controlled) of Soave Superiore was created, but it did not necessarily come from the Classico vineyards. This move caused friction among the wine growers, and confusion amongst wine drinkers, and these days Soave Superiore as a category is very much less significant than Soave Classico, despite being a DOCG.
The principal, and in most cases, only grape variety is Garganega, an intriguing variety that is related to Cataratto and Albana. It is not especially aromatic; it ripens late and can be quite temperamental in the vineyard, but it likes the cooler nights of higher altitude vineyards, which help retain the freshness in the grapes. And in the cellar, it responds well to variations in vinification techniques. Simple Soave enjoys a straightforward cool fermentation, but in the search for more depth of flavor for Soave Classico and the growing number of crus, or recognized single vineyards within Soave, the wine growers have experimented. The wines benefit from some skin contact, and some aging on the lees, with bâtonnage, the process of stirring up the lees. Further options include fermentation in wood and aging in oak, in small barrels or larger botti. The use of oak needs great care; Soave does not have the weight and body for the use of new oak in any quantity, but the subtle use of old oak certainly adds an extra dimension to the wine.
Garganega may be blended with up to 20% of other grape varieties, most commonly Trebbiano di Soave. This grape variety has nothing at all to do with the generally uninspiring Trebbiano di Toscana, but is akin to Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Lugana, with some attractive floral flavours.
Proliferation of crus
The other qualitative move has been the recognition of numerous crus or individual vineyards, which can feature on a label. Inspired by the use of crus in Burgundy, the very first appeared in the 1980s and these days there are well over 50 crus, which demonstrate the very best of Soave. Look for wines like Cà Visco from Coffele, Le Rive and Monte Carbonare from Suavia, Runcata from Dal Cero, Motto Piane from Fattori, and Il Casale from Vicentini, to name but a handful.
The versatility of Garganega also extends to its ability to create delicious sweet wines, in the form of Recioto di Soave. Italians are masters supreme of the art of appassimento, whereby ripe, healthy grapes are dried for several weeks, if not months, in a barn or warehouse where air flow and humidity are carefully controlled. The grapes are picked at the beginning of the harvest while they still retain a good level of acidity and are pressed in January or February, by which time they have lost 40% of their original weight. A slow fermentation, usually in an oak barrel, follows, and the result is a deliciously ripe and unctuous wine — but always with a refreshing streak of acidity, to avoid a cloying finish.
One of the problems of Soave for the consumer is the considerable range of price and quality. You can find Soave in an Italian supermarket for 2 euros ($2.60), while some of the finest Soave will reach 25 euros ($32) or more. And there is a world of difference between the two. The best Soave comes from the Classico heart of the region, from one of the crus, and from a reputable wine grower. The name on the label is the key to quality. And drinkability is a key characteristic. Often the best wines are refreshingly light in alcohol, rarely passing 13%. They have a firm acidity, with a striking volcanic minerality, fully justifying their reputation as among Italy’s best known and most enjoyable wines.
Top photo: Vineyards in Soave, Italy. Credit: jkk at nl.wikipedia
An invitation to taste Jacquart Champagne over lunch at Chrysan, which opened last summer and is rapidly establishing itself as one of London’s leading Japanese restaurants, was pretty irresistible. But we did have to work for our lunch, which was preceded by a very comprehensive tasting, illustrating above all that the quality and style of a Champagne depends upon the talent of the winemaker for blending.
The winemaker at Jacquart is Floriane Eznack, who first took us through five vins clairs. These are the still wines that form the Champagne’s blend before the production of bubbles. Tasting vins clairs is an intriguing and demanding exercise, and it certainly makes you realize just how bubbles can soften what would otherwise be rather severe flavors.
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We had five examples, all from the 2012 vintage. It was not an easy year: There were numerous climatic problems, including severe temperatures in February and prolonged flowering that dragged on for three weeks rather than the usual one, which in turn affected the length of the harvest. Until the end of July, things were not looking good, with mildew and rot, but then hot weather arrived in August and everything came right in September. As we were able to taste, the results in the glass are very satisfactory.
The nuances were intriguing and subtle. There was a Pinot Meunier from the village of Villedommange, a premier cru village on the Montagne de Reims, with a ripe nose and a fruity and rounded palate.
A Pinot Noir from Ville-sur-Arce in the southern Côte des Bar was more structured on the palate. Next came a Pinot Noir from Mailly, on the Montagne de Reims. Eznack talked about the austerity of Mailly as it is a north-facing village, with vineyards protected by the woods on the summit of the hill. There was a touch of pink in the color, with some rounded fruit and quite a full long finish. I did not actually find it that austere.
We finished with a pair of contrasting Chardonnay wines, one from Villers-Marmery, one of the two Chardonnay villages on the Montagne de Reims, with some stony lemony fruit on the palate. Chardonnay from Chouilly on the Côtes des Blancs, was fuller, and more floral.
And then we moved onto Champagne itself, with a vertical tasting of the Blanc de Blancs. Wine from the villages of Villers-Marmery and Chouilly forms the backbone of this wine, as well as Avize and Vertus. Jacquart uses no oak for any of their wines, and so it was fascinating to see how the flavors had developed, with what could almost be described as hint of oaky richness in the more mature wines. I sometimes find the same effect in Chablis as well.
Jacquart Champagne tasting notes
2005: Light golden color. It had quite a rounded nose, quite broad and rich, and on the palate quite ripe and honeyed. The vintage was influenced by some rain in August and September.
2004: I initially liked this a lot, as it was tighter and more structured, with some elegant yeast autolysis. However, Eznack observed a note of reductiveness, and indeed the wine failed to evolve in the glass as the other wines did. Nonetheless it had a dry, nutty palate, but with a tighter structure.
2002: This came from Chouilly and Vertus, as well as Sézanne, a village south of the Côte des Blancs. Light golden. It had a broader richer nose, with ripe brioche on the palate. It also possessed a fuller bodied with a long note of maturity. This was a nicely rounded palate, but with elegance and length.
1999: This was my favorite as it was light golden and had quite a broad, mature nutty nose. There was a beautifully mature palate. It was rounded and nutty, with a concentrated finish, with understated richness. 1999 was the warmest vintage of the four.
Lunch was accompanied by a flight of Jacquart Vintage Brut, a blend of 45% Chardonnay with 55% Pinot Noir. It can be quite challenging tasting wines with a meal. I find myself getting distracted by other flavors, and that was certainly true of the delicious sashimi selection that was our first course.
Our meal included salmon with wasabi tosajyoyo jelly, yellowtail with mooli and horseradish, tuna with egg yolk soy and ginger, Mediterranean shrimp with ponzu jelly, sea bream marinated with sun-dried tomato, and Parmesan and scallop with shaved black truffle. Some of the subtle Japanese flavors were quite new to me, and the Champagnes set them off to perfection.
We enjoyed a 2005 vintage that was quite golden in color, quite rich and honey on the nose, with texture and depth on the palate, and a honeyed finish. You certainly could see the vintage similarity between the 2005s, although the Pinot Noir added structure to the wine.
And with the 2004 we were treated to quite the best sushi that I have ever eaten, namely tuna with saffron and wakame sushi rice, kinoko rolls with mushroom, chestnuts, edamame, inari rice, with beetroot paper, a salmon cake on saffron and beetroot rice, and an Ebi 10 roll, prawn tempura and wakame rice wrapped in carrot paper. The flavors were fabulously subtle and tasty, and suited the 2204 Vintage Jacquart.
The 2004 vintage was similar to the Blanc de Blancs, for this was quite closed with a firm nose and quite a tight structured palate, and still very youthful,
The 2002 was quite rich and nutty and on the palate with some delicious yeast autolysis and brioche notes. This was my favorite of the three.
And then came the 1999 Vintage Rosé. By this time I was running late for my next appointment, so I tasted it without the dessert it was intended to accompany. I think it would have gone well with something sweet, as it was quite a deep pink, with rather a heavy nose, and on the palate, quite rich and sweet, with ripe raspberry fruit.
Top photo: Jacquart Champagne. Credit: Alex Layton
Turkey is a sleeping giant of untapped potential. It is one of the world’s largest growers of grapes, but only about 2% of the total grape production is actually used for wine and 96% of that production is drunk in Turkey. Although the history of winemaking in Turkey dates several millennia (archaeological remains prove that Turkey was one of the places where wine was first produced), production came to a halt during the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Things eased up once Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established a secular state in the 1920s, but you sense that it is only in the last 10 years or so that the industry has begun to blossom once more, with an influx of winemakers from very different backgrounds.
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And this injection of new life into the wine industry has given the older established wineries such as Doluca, Kavaklidere and Pamukkale the impetus to improve and renovate. The young winemaker, Semril Zorlu, at Kavaklidere’s Pendore vineyards has trained in Montpellier and Bordeaux, including a stage at Château Margaux, working on experiments with organic and biodynamic viticulture. And she is not alone; several of the winemakers have studied abroad, and the newer wineries are employing foreign consultants.
Taste of ‘throat gripper’ in Turkish wine
Turkey has many wonderfully distinctive indigenous grape varieties. We had the opportunity to taste white Emir and Narince, as well as Sultaniye, which is more commonly known as Thompson Seedless, and also grown for table grapes and dried sultanas (a.k.a. raisins), not to mention the popular alcoholic drink raki. The red varieties have exotic names, such as Kalecik Karasi, Őkűzgözű and Boğazkere. Őkűzgözű translates literally as “bull’s eye,” and the grapes are fat and juicy. Boğazkere means “throat gripper,” for its firm tannic streak, while Kalecik Karasi is more elegant and sometimes compared with Nerello Mascalese or Nebbiolo. The flavors are fresh and exciting, and these undoubtedly represented the discovery of the visit.
But the Turks themselves much prefer to drink international grape varieties, so you will also find some very convincing examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon, pure or blended with the indigenous varieties. My problem is that I am always much more interested by the unusual, but the international varieties were good.
There is interest, too, in Italian varieties. Federico Curtaz who has a vineyard on Etna and consults for Villa Estet, where the soil is volcanic, is planting Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. I also encountered Sangiovese and Nero d’Avola. And for southern French grape varieties, there was a Roussanne-Marsanne blend from Suvla winery, as well as Grenache and Carignan, in addition to Shiraz or Syrah.
I returned to London bubbling with enthusiasm after a wonderful journey of discovery. You could not help but be carried away with the passion and dedication of the Turkish winemakers. There is a sense of adventure, and the feeling that the Turkish wine industry has a serious future, with both indigenous and international flavours, and that Turkey is full of untapped potential. So if you come across a bottle, do give it a try. You may well be very pleasantly surprised.
Photo: A Turkish vineyard. Credit: Rosemary George