Unfamiliarity isn’t the only hurdle facing the born-again Turkish wine industry. The government is Islamic-leaning, although not fundamentalist, the taxes on local (and imported) wine are outrageously high and most Turks would rather drink beer and raki than Cabernet Sauvignon.
The news isn’t all bad, however. Turkey is a popular holiday destination for Brits seeking to avoid the eurozone – many of whom drink wine. It has an established and vibrant food culture and half a dozen distinctive local grapes. It also has a smattering of international winemakers and some very committed Turkish wine producers.
Even my more adventurous colleagues were surprised when I decided to spend a week in Turkey tasting wine and visiting regions, however. “Blimey, do they still make Buzbag??” said one. “That stuff gave me one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever had, at a campsite in Bodrum in the mid-1980s. Scumbag more like it.” My response was that I wanted to experience one of the oldest wine-producing cultures on earth. Alongside Armenia, Georgia and what is now Iran, Turkey is part of the cradle of wine civilisation. Vitis vinifera vines still grow wild in parts of Eastern Anatolia, clinging to rocks like tenacious mountain goats, and if you believe the Bible, the site of Noah’s post-flood vineyard is here, too. Turkey may only account for 0.25% of global wine production, but its history alone makes it worth a visit.
Before I left for Istanbul, I received an email with a long list of questions from a local journalist. Among other things, she wanted to know about my expectations of Turkish wine. The honest answer was that I didn’t have any, negative or positive. That’s why I wanted to go there. Wine-wise, Turkey was terra incognita to me.
The first morning began with a presentation by American wine consultant Daniel O’Donnell, who works for the Kayra Winery and is as informed as any outsider about what is going on in Turkey. Reliable statistics are hard to nail down, mind you. Turkey makes anything between 70 million and 80 million litres of wine per year, a good deal of which is home-made and sold on the grey market.
As O’Donnell puts it: “The wine the Turkish population has been brought up with is very poor, but that’s changing.” It certainly is. I did two large blind tastings of 50 of Turkey’s best wines during my visit – and I was impressed. Turkey has a dozen producers which make wines of international quality: Kavaklidere, Turasan, Doluca, Likya, Selendi, Kayra, Urla Bag?cilik, Melen, Vinkara, Prodom, Risus and Corvus. The stuff that the average Turk drinks – Kinali Bag? and Dimitrakopulo were two bottles I picked off a shelf – may be pretty vile, but there’s a new generation of wines that is fruity and well made.
The most exciting thing about Turkey is its native grapes, blessed with names like “ox’s eye”, “black from the small castle” and, best of all, “throat scraper”. No one has done DNA analysis on them – the Turks don’t even know how extensive the country’s vineyards are – but these could well be some of the oldest varieties in the world. Taste something made from Kalice Karasi, Bog?azkere or Öküzgözü and, in all probability, you are drinking history. Add two excellent local whites (Emir and Narince) to these three distinctive reds and Turkey has some very good raw material indeed.
The problem is how to sell them, especially in export markets, where the names are unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce. That’s why a lot of producers blend native grapes with more international Chardonnay, Syrah or Cabernet Sauv-ignon, or just ignore them altogether and use French or occasionally Italian grapes. Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Nero d’Avola and especially Syrah all have potential, but it’s the native grapes that offer something new.
Overseas, Turkish wines sell mainly to ex-pats. Breaking into a broader market will not be easy. Even if we Brits generally have a good impression of Turkey, are we ready to drink its wines? I think Turkey needs to keep its native grapes off the front label and come up with some brands that are recognisably Turkish but don’t sound Islamic or rely on images of mosques. It could also do with a restaurant along the lines of the Real Greek which promotes Turkish wine and food together.
More importantly, it needs an independent or a supermarket to take a punt on a few wines. Turkey doesn’t have the volumes or the generic funding to make a major onslaught on the UK market. But there should be a place for its best wines on our shelves. Who knows, 10 years from now we might all be familiar with Öküzgözü.