Located a little over an hour’s flight from Istanbul, Cappadocia is the jewel of central Turkey. Its surreal “fairy chimney” rock formations, hot air balloon tourism, and network of underground cities and cave churches has made it one of the country’s top attractions—for good reason. Just as impressive but far less known, however, is the region’s history as an important wine center that predates Christianity and where some of the world’s first viticultural legislation was introduced. Today, Cappadocian producers draw on this rich history to produce interesting, complex wines that spotlight ancient native (and foreign) grapes.
In Cappadocia, evidence of grape and wine production dates back to at least 3000 BC during the Neolithic era. But the region’s vigorous wine culture wasn’t established until the arrival of the Hittites, an ancient group of Indo-Europeans who formed an empire in Anatolia around 1600 BC. For the Hittites, wine was an important part of the social, cultural, and economic fabric of daily life; it was used in religious ceremonies and helped prop up the local economy, leading to the formation of related industries such as the creation of pottery specifically for wine service. The Hittites were also among the first civilizations to lay down viticultural legislation. Inscriptions on cuneiform tablets indicate that in addition to private vineyards, the state and temples also owned vineyards. Wines were grouped into categories (young, aged, dry, sweet, red, etc.) and the region played host to annual grape harvest festivals.
Wine played such a vital role in the Hittite kingdom that their lands were called “Wiyanawanda,” which translates to “land of the grapevine.” (Interestingly, it is from their word, “wiyana” that many modern languages have derived their own word for wine.)
While “land of the grapevine” might evoke lush green vine canopies and rolling hills à la Tuscany, wine country in Cappadocia looks a little different. Looking around the desolate and barren lands where volcanoes once spewed lava, you might think anyone who attempts to make wine here is mad. But, as the saying goes, when nothing else will grow, plant grape vines.
Pierced by volcanic peaks, some of which soar more than 3,800 feet above sea level, Cappadocia sits at some of the highest elevations in Turkey, which explains its markedly continental climate. Rainfall is sparse and the region is largely semi-arid. If Turkey has any one region that could be considered extreme it would be Cappadocia—some of its vineyards at the far edges exceed altitudes of 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) and are home to ungrafted vines that clock in between 150 to 200 years old.
Despite its extreme growing conditions, Cappadocia has proved to be a fertile home for one grape in particular: Emir, one of Turkey’s major native white grapes. Emir grapes prefer soils that are composed of sand, sandstone, and decomposed volcanic tuff, making this infertile region a perfect home. Grapes are slightly oval, green-yellow, medium sized, grow in conical clusters, and ripen mid-season. When it grows in its native land, Emir seemingly (if not scientifically) soaks up minerals from the volcanic soils, giving the wine a “salty” edge to its otherwise fruity and floral profile.
Other grape varieties, both native and international, have also taken root in Cappadocia. Popular grapes like Kalecik Karası, Hasandede, Chardonnay, and Tempranillo grow here, as do rare varieties like Keten Gömlek, Kızıl Üzüm, and İt Üzümü.
Though wine production in Cappadocia may not be as robust as it was 4,000 years ago, it isn’t dormant either. Today the region is home to some of the oldest, most innovative wineries in Turkey—like Turasan, which was established by Hasan Turasan in 1939 as a way to stimulate the local economy and support grape growers. By 1943, the winery was producing 3,000 liters annually. Now it is one of the largest and most recognized wineries in Turkey, not to mention one of the area’s major tourist attractions, with a tasting room where you can sample a variety of wines made from both domestic and international grapes.
Then there’s Mehmet Erdoğan, who turned his village home and garden into a small winery in 1972. By 1986, he was selling his wine commercially under the name Kocabağ. While the winery is located about a half-hour drive outside the center, visitors can sample and buy his wines at the winery’s store and tasting area in Cappadocia, in Uçhısar. Kocabağ produces several Emir-based wines, as well as wines made from other native Turkish grapes including Narince, Kalecik Karası, Öküzgözü, and Boğazkere and international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 2003, Turkish wine giant Kavaklidere established its third winery, Cotes d’Avanos, a short drive outside Cappadocia’s Göreme. The Cotes d’Avanos facility turns out some of Kavaklidere’s highest quality wines and focuses on the regional grape Emir, the native grape Narince, and international varieties Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Tempranillo.
Also located in the Uçhisar area of Cappadocia is Argos Vineyards, part of the Argos in Cappadocia Project. Over the course of 10 years, Gökşin Ilıcalı transformed a small, neglected neighborhood of stone houses in Uçhisar into a luxury hotel called Argos in Cappadocia. In 2002, Ilıcalı also planted vineyards around the hotel. Under the label Gilamada, Argos Vineyards produces wines made from Emir, Kalecik Karası, and Syrah.
Not too far outside of Cappadocia, in Kayseri, is the organic ORSER certified winery Vinolus, founded on the grounds of Oluş Molu’s family farm in 2007. Vinolus is one of Turkey’s smaller wineries, producing about 10,000 bottles a year of white, rosé, and red wines using Emir, Narince, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Kalecik Karası, Shiraz, and Tempranillo. The winery may be small but the wines produced on this ecological farm are both unique and exceptional.
This extraordinary region has also given birth to one of the country’s most interesting wineries: Gelveri. Located in Güzelyurt, a 90 minute drive from central Cappadocia, this is the brainchild of German immigrant Udo Hirsch and his wife, Hacer Özkaya. In addition to making wines from more well-known Kalecik Karası and Hasandede, they source rare grapes from around the village and vinify entirely with wild yeast in ancient amphora. If you are familiar with the wines from the Republic of Georgia, it will not surprise you to discover that Hirsch learned how to make wine while working there. The winery itself is part of their renovated 300 year-old cave home and is truly boutique, producing only about 5,000 bottles annually. All the wines, red and white, are made with extended skin contact for deeply-colored Kalecik Karası and amber wines. In addition to contributing to the Turkish wine landscape, Gelveri plays a vital role in the rescue, study, and understanding of Turkish grape varieties. Thanks to them, we now have wines made from previously unheard of grapes: Kızıl Üzüm, Koku Üzüm, Keten Gömlek, İt Üzümü, and Taş Üzüm.
The next time you travel to Turkey to see the hidden cave churches, underground cities, and the strange beauty of Cappadocia, make sure to take some time to visit the local wineries and taste the fruits of their labor. The flavors will transport you to heights unmatched by even the famous hot air balloons.