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Turkish Wine Has Vast Potential, Exciting Flavors

Turkish vineyard

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.

I lost count of the number of wineries where I learned that the date of their first vintage was within the last decade. Take the three wineries I visited around the town of Urla outside Izmir. The winery called Urla was created by Can Ortabaş with a first vintage in 2006. He is also the world’s biggest producer of palm trees. The winery is very stylish, and the wines show promise. Mosaic is run by Ali Emin. He made his first wine in 2008 with the help of Italian expertise, and the modern winery was funded by his father-in-law’s coal mine. And Reha and Bilge Őğűnlű lived in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the United States, before coming back to Turkey in 2002 and planting vines on a more modest scale. My instinct to favor indigenous grape varieties was upset here; they produce an intriguingly salty Chardonnay and a beautifully harmonious Cabernet Sauvignon.

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

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.

  • gdfo 2·7·13

    I do think that some folks just get stuck in their opinions on where good/great wine can come from. It is exciting to taste wines from regions that I had previously not tried. Over time Cultures change and so do life styles and preferences.

    Good article! Wish there were more like this.

  • Rosemary George 2·7·13

    Thank you for your enthusiasm – and do try some Turkish wine if you have the opportunity

  • Sal Captain 2·7·13

    I applaud you for this great article, as a retired engineer in California, I planted a vineyard with 3500 vines and have been making incredible wine for 4 years now. I follow stories like this as it re-energize me when I hear of all the difficulties people face in other parts of the world in making this wonderful nectar of the gods. I have five varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab. Franc, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah and Pinot Noir growing on very steep hillsides 25 miles east of San Francisco where the climate is fantastic for these varieties; sunny an warm during the summer days, and very cool at night.
    Keep up the writing.