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F - 149 : Turkish Wines

Most people who come to Turkey would not associate the country with wine production. But the wine list in Istanbul’s restaurants is exquisite. We absolutely must taste a few local wines when in town and I let you judge for yourself. I find them delicious and well worth their price.

Bogazkere grows in Southeast Anatolia and is quite high in Tannin

Producing wine in Anatolia has a long tradition. Grapes originate from the border region of Turkey, Armenia and Persia. Legend has it that Noah planted the first vines at the foot of Mount Ararat which lies just inside Turkey’s border. We know that wine was made for more than 7’000 years in Turkey and even 8’000 years in Georgia. Turkey has over 800 indigenous varieties of grapes – the largest and most diverse grape gene pool in the world. Wines from Turkey’s east were once shipped down the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The Sumer civilization craved for wood to build large palaces and temples – not having any in the flat lands of modern Iraq. With the tree floats came other goods as well – amongst them wine. The Sumerian elite loved it and it became the royal beverage of choice!

Turkey's Wine Regions. Region 1 and 2 produce about 3/4 of all Wines

Over the millennia and with the help of the Persian Empire, the vines migrated west into Anatolia, then to Greece from where they spread through the Mediterranean and along the Danube river. By 1’000 BC, wine making from grapes was firmly established in the Greek culture (see my blog E - 8). Cultivating grapes is a well-preserved tradition in Anatolia. Few people know that Turkey is the world’s sixth largest grape producer with over 500’000 ha under cultivation. China is the largest with 850’000 ha, followed by Italy with 670’000 ha. The USA with 450’000 ha is well behind. We find Turkish grapes in all super markets. Due to their exposure to lots of sun light, they are sweet and tasty.

A Large Vineyard in the Anatolian Highlands

Turkey’s wine production is small though. Its 615’000 hectoliter are a fraction of America’s 23 million. Almost the entire volume is consumed domestically. Only 5% are exported. For thousands of years, however, Anatolia produced large quantities of wine. The myth that the Ottoman Empire stopped wine production for religious reasons is what the name says: a myth. Muslims were a majority in the Ottoman Empire but Christians a sizable minority. Armenia and Greece were Christian, so were the Balkan nations of Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia and Hungary. Add to this the strong Christian minorities in Egypt, Syria and Iraq and you get the picture. All these people continued to drink wine. There is no Holy Communion without red wine.

One of the many Vineyards in the Aegean in Western Turkey

Anatolia’s wine production collapsed with the Ottoman Empire in 1922. Christians were forced to leave Turkey and wine was too expensive for the general population. Farmers sold the grapes instead. Within a few decades, the skills of making wine were lost. In the 1980, a few wine enthusiasts resuscitated the old tradition and began making it again. Not too successful in the beginning. I remember their so la la quality from my first visits. But as the years passed, Turkish winemakers became more sophisticated again and acquired the expertise to make excellent wines. Today, you can buy more than 60 different Turkish wine labels in New York alone. About ¾ of Turkey’s wine is produced around the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean. But also the Anatolian highland produces excellent wines, primarily whites.

The Kavaklidere Vineyard halfway between Istanbul and Ankara

Given the variety of indigenous Turkish wines, most of the names I had never heard before.

  • Coalkarasi from the Aegean is apparently the best grape to make a fresh, crispy Rosé.

  • Narince is a native white grape from the Tokat region and grows on sandy soil. It is described as “similar to Chardonnay but with lighter density” (wonder what this actually means!).

  • Emir is another white grape from Central Anatolia, good for dry and sparkling wines. It comes with a yellow-green color and is easy and refreshing to drink

  • Sultana is a seedless white grape from the Aegean. It produces light and fruity white wines but they need to be consumed young.

  • Then there is the Misket grape which grows around Izmir. It is said to be the most aromatic of all indigenous white grapes. It is used to make both dry and sweet wines.

  • Then there is Bogazkere from southwest Anatolia, a red so high with tannin that it needs to be decanted. Some people say it has to be treated like a Barolo to enjoy it.

  • The Öküzgözü grows in the Elazig region and carries floral and fruity aromas. It produces a medium body red wine which is often blended with Bogazkere.

  • Last but not least I want to mention the Kalecik Karasi from the Ankara region. Its wine is medium body and comes with red fruit aromas. It ages easily.

We will have to do the tasting by trial and error. Luckily, there are also grape varieties we are well familiar with like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. The Turkish winemakers have become experts in making beautiful blends. I think we will be in for a real treat.

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