The existence of a long and vibrant wine culture in Turkey may seem unlikely. Turkish wine is almost unknown in major markets and despite its status as a secular republic, the country’s population is predominantly Muslim. And yet, Turkey is a place of grace for vines and the birthplace of hundreds of native varieties, with vines first cultivated for wine here at least 6,000 years ago. Scores of unique varieties are still cultivated for wine today, although hundreds are (probably) lost forever.
At its height in 1904, Turkey was producing 340 million litres of wine in a year, exporting a sizeable proportion to Europe. As the vine pest phylloxera devasted European vineyards, Ottoman trade agreements with France boosted Turkish vineyards. Winemaking and the culture that surrounded it were encouraged by the Ottomans, in the hands of Armenian, Greek and Jesuit communities.
Wine exports today are tiny by comparison, yet Turkey still has the fifth largest vineyard area in the world (with the majority of today’s vine crop destined for table grapes, dried grapes or fruit juice). Vineyards are established across the country and in a range of macro-climates: in the high Thracian massif bordering Bulgaria; in rocky red plains behind the Black Sea coast; in the wild eastern borders with Georgia and Syria; in the yacht-sprinkled Aegean in the west, and in the fantastical tufa landscape of the Cappadocian interior.
The strategic location of this fertile country, however, made Turkey a prize worth fighting for. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, front lines and tragic ‘population exchanges’ resulted in the abandonment of many of the country’s vineyards.
Ataturk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic, instigated the modern Turkish wine industry in the 1930s not long after the new republic was forged across two continents. French consultants were engaged in setting up Tekel, the state-owned winemaker, and in the 1940s and 1950s pioneer private producers also set up and planted international grape varieties alongside those native to the country. Heady, ripe reds and soft, easy-going whites became the norm.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that we witnessed the next shift in style, when the market was deregulated to permit the establishment of boutique wineries. Well-funded and equipped with exquisite restaurants to appeal to Turkey’s tourism market, these visionary wineries in Thrace sparked a revolution. For 20 years, quality, confidence and sales expanded, and credible examples of international varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah emerged and sold well in Istanbul’s sophisticated wine bars. Turkey’s wine signature also began to emerge: pure, expressive fruit within wines of elegant texture. Native varieties received more attention as their natural freshness and distinctive aromatics became apparent.
Turkey is the birthplace of hundreds of native grape varieties
In 2013, President Erdogan’s shift to a non-secular hardline was reflected in new alcohol laws, which might have been initially perceived as a setback for all this progress. Any form of wine communication, promotion or marketing was forbidden and almost overnight, wine tastings, events and education stopped. But vineyard tours? They were a different story. The 2013 strictures forced producers to stop talking about their wines and start talking about their vineyards.
This vineyard focus has revolutionised the Turkish wine scene, and Turkey’s native varieties from old vineyards are now behind some of the most exciting wines in the country. The mysterious freshness of the native Turkish white varieties reminds me of the texture of Rhône wines, and the sneaky perfume of whites from southern Italy. And a lighter touch with international varieties results in a style that evokes the persuasive confidence of Napa Valley with a distinctive and delicious edge. Here are five key native grapes to get to know.
Five Turkish grape varieties to look out for
Öküzgözü is Turkey’s most widely planted red grape variety. It produces succulent wines with fine voluminous tannins and gorgeously plummy fruit, backlit by freshness. Its name means ‘bull’s eye’, named for its large round berries. Plush and gently spicy, it’s Turkey’s most crowd-pleasing red. Serious examples from old vines have impressive depth and textural complexity.
Boğazkere is Turkey’s Tannat. The grape name translates as ‘throat burner’ but don’t let that put you off: in the right hands with tannins tamed, it is a superstar, with genuine intensity, longevity, and a Nebbiolo-like aromatic nuance. Today’s producers are taking a lighter touch with extraction and some genuinely intriguing and complex wines result. Full bodied with unforced freshness, its wines have black cherry and pepper aromas, and develop notes of tobacco, coffee, and dark chocolate with time. Boğazkere is often blended with Öküzgözü, and with international varieties.
One to try: Doluca Wines, Tugra, Boğazkere 2018
Kalecik Karası (meaning ‘black from Kalecik’) is a beguiling counterpoint to exuberant Öküzgözü and assertive Boğazkere. Pale, scented, and textured like raw silk, wines from Kalecik Karası are sometimes likened by Turks to Gamay or Pinot Noir. The comparisons are fair but Kalecik Karası has a distinctive, almost exotic, perfume and unforced freshness that make it uniquely delicious. The variety originates from Kalecik, near Ankara. The continental climate and marine soils here are considered to produce wines with KK’s most seductive tension. Widely grown now across Turkey, examples from the Aegean are plumper but still with trademark strawberry and mulberry fruit.
One to try: Kayra, Allure, Kalecik Karasi Kirmizi 2021
Originally from the Anatolian heart of Turkey, this adaptable white is now widely planted across both the Asian and European sides. ‘Narince’ (pronounced ‘nareen-jay’) means ‘delicate’, and its wines typically have floral and pink grapefruit aromas. It is round, fresh and gently scented, and can be made either dry or medium-sweet. You could serve Narince to a die-hard Pinot Grigio fan.
One to try: Kayra, Vintage Narince 2021
Narince can sidle in anywhere but Emir is a more provocative and complex proposition. The name means ‘ruler’. An intriguing variety with high acidity, Emir gives wines that are mineral and savoury. It is sharper and more austere than Narince but it has more complexity, and age-ability. Originally from the volcanic soils of Cappadocia, in the middle of the country, it is increasingly planted in other regions of Turkey. Like Narince, Emir blends well, either with Narince or with international varieties, especially Chardonnay.
One to try: Yedi Bilgeler Sarapcilik, Vindemia Defne