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Seyit Karagözoğlu and Paşaeli Wines: Rescuing the Lost Turkish Grapes

Seyit Karagözoğlu and Paşaeli Wines: Rescuing the Lost Turkish Grapes

Kaynaklar | Photo credit: Paşaeli & Seyit Karagözoğlu

Turkey ranks sixth in grape production, holds the world’s fifth-largest vineyard in the world, and is home to many interesting indigenous varieties (over 1,435 and counting). However, local wine production relies heavily on international grapes, especially French grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Of the over 1,200 domestic grape varieties, wine producers use a mere 40 while the rest are rapidly fading away.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to Turkey. After the early 19th-century phylloxera epidemic decimated vineyards across Europe, many replanted with hardier and easier-to-grow varieties. For example, Northern Italy was in danger of losing many of its native and traditional grapes like Ribolla Gialla, Vitovska, and Pignolo until the 1980s and 90s when a few dedicated producers fought to revive them.

Twenty years ago, you could probably count on one hand the number of Turkish grapes used in winemaking. Now, a new wave of winemakers and winery owners are championing native varieties and bringing them back from the brink of extinction. One of the leaders of this push to conserve native Turkish grapes is Seyit Karagözoğlu, owner of Paşaeli Wines.

Karagözoğlu’s first entrance to the wine profession was as an importer. In 1993 he founded KDT and began importing wine and beer to Turkey. In his words, visiting suppliers in Italy and France “opened his eyes,” and he came to the conclusion he wanted to do more than import wine—he wanted to make it. In January of 2000, at the age of 33, Karagözoğlu started a new phase in his life, that of a winemaker.

Bordeaux-style wines enjoy immense popularity in Turkey and are some of (if not the) most commercially successful wines. Knowing he needed this domestic success and attention, Karagözoğlu’s first two wines (Kaynaklar and K2) were Bordeaux-style reds. With that accomplished, he could turn his attention to his real passion—the discovery and conservation of native grapes. Thanks to his efforts, we now better understand and have wines made from six “new” grapes: Çakal, Çalkarası, Karasakız, Kolorko, Sıdalan, and Yapıncak.

Seyit Karagözoğlu | Photo credit: Paşaeli & Seyit Karagözoğlu

Andrea Lemieux: What was the catalyst, your “ah-ha” moment for deciding to embark on this conservation path?

Seyit Karagözoğlu: In 2001, I tasted a bottle of Kolorko (1996 vintage) in Hoşköy (one of the last few bottles the winemaker had in stock). The producer told me that he no longer makes the wine because he can no longer find grapes as it is almost extinct. Being five years old, the [white] wine was tired, but I could see the potential. I had seen many examples of this in Italy, where a forgotten grape gets rescued, and a decade or so later, it is exported all over the world.

But I was a newcomer to the winemaking scene in Turkey, and I thought and expected that the existing local winemakers in Thrace would do something about rescuing the variety. Surely, they all had the means and potential to do so.

It took me a few years to realize that no one could be bothered. Unless someone stepped in and did something, the variety would be extinct forever, and that someone had to be me.

AL: Was there a particular grape that sparked this?

SK: Actually, there were two grapes; Kolorko and Yapıncak.

In 2007 and 2008, we visited many villages near Şarköy, trying to find growers who still had Kolorko vines. We were able to locate just a few growers who each had five to ten plants “forgotten” in some corner of their respective vineyards. In 2009 we made a trial vinification and in 2010 started to get cuttings from those few growers to replant in our vineyard.

Yapıncak (aka Kınalı Yapıncak) was another variety of Şarköy area that was almost “forgotten.” It was more available than Kolorko, but nobody used it for winemaking. Its leaves are perfect for making yaprak sarması (stuffed grape leaves), and the grapes are generally used for table wines. But those days, I wanted to make a white wine, our first commercial white wine, but I did NOT want to make it from an international variety.

So, in 2010 I decided that I would try Yapıncak as it was an indigenous variety of the region. Some winemakers told me I was crazy and that I was wasting my time with Yapıncak. Our 2011 vintage Yapıncak got a Gold Medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition and [received] the “Best of Nation” award as well. It was the first time a Turkish wine had received Gold at SFIWC. This was the moment when others “woke up” to Yapıncak. But I knew all along (through my wine importer experiences) that indigenous varieties were the way forward to opening up to the rest of the world.

Since the beginning, our Yapıncak has come from a single vineyard with 50-year-old vines. In the beginning, we were purchasing the fruit. Back in 2017, we were able to purchase the vineyard. Currently, 100 percent of the wine we make with the fruit of this vineyard gets exported, mostly to the USA, UK, Spain, and Germany.

Yapıncak in Şarköy | Photo credit: Paşaeli & Seyit Karagözoğlu

AL: Do you hear about grapes and go looking for them or come upon them accidentally?

SK: I heard about Kolorko and went looking for it. But I came upon Çakal accidentally.

A few years ago, we were in the north Kaz Dağları (Kaz Mountains) looking for old vine Sıdalan grapes. We met a grower who told us that he had 60-to-80-years-old Sıdalan vines planted by his grandfather. So, we (our consultant Andrea Paoletti and I) went to his vineyard. It was late August or early September, and grapes were close to ripening (just seven to ten days away from picking). While walking in the vineyard, I noticed five to six vines that had red-skinned clusters. I knew I had stumbled on to something interesting.

I asked him, “What are these?” He answered, “Eski Üzüm,” which means old grape. What a name for a grape variety! I asked him “Why the old grape name”? He said, “This variety was planted everywhere, but it didn’t make money, so we all cut it [down], and so it is the old grape.” I asked him, “How many kilos a year is your crop”? He said, “400 to 500 kilos.” I asked him, “Will you sell me some”? He asked, “Will you pay upfront”? I said yes, and we immediately had a deal.

Back in the village, I asked the elders about the variety. Through my questions and the answers [I received], I understood that the variety had been a victim of its skin color. Red skins were not dark enough for making red wine. But there was too much color for making white wine. And those days, nobody cared about rosé wines. So, none of the wineries wanted these red-skinned grapes. It was all cut down and replaced with other varieties making money.

I also learned from the elders of the village that the variety is called Çakal (jackal). Because it turns out it ripens earlier than other varieties of the region – Karasakız and Sıdalan – and the jackals come down from the hills and eat the sweeter grapes. That’s why it is named Çakal.

AL: So, you find a grape, and what comes next? Do you transplant it to your vineyards? Buy the land where they’re growing? Contract with whoever was growing them?

SK: We cannot immediately transplant to our vineyard. And we cannot buy the land as the owner might not want to sell the vineyard. [However,] We must not be aggressive, especially in the beginning. It is important to build a relationship, a trust, and create a win-win scenario. First of all, we have to buy some fruit and vinify. Once we make the wine, we start to understand the variety and its potential. It takes us two to three years to better understand how to handle the variety or vinify it properly. Then we must select “healthier” plants to get cuttings. Once we get cuttings, we plant them in our vineyard. This way, we know we can preserve the variety. But it is a long process that takes years. Meanwhile, we contract those growers so that we can source the grapes to vinify year after year.

AL: Aside from making wine with these grapes, are you engaged in any clonal studies with researchers at the Ankara University or the Tekirdağ Bağcılık Araştırma Enstitüsü (Tekirdağ Vineyard Research Insititute)?

SK: We have collaborated with Jose Vouillamoz, the world’s leading Vitis vinifera DNA expert. (J. Vouillamoz is also the co-author of Wine Grapes book together with Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding.) As a result of this collaboration, we now have in our hands DNA studies for Çalkarası, Yapıncak, Kolorko, Karasakız, Sıdalan, and Çakal.

Gedik | Photo credit: Paşaeli & Seyit Karagözoğlu

Andrea Lemieux: You’re helping change the landscape of wine in the country and the perception of Turkish wine. Did you intend to do that?

SK: No, not at all. I just did what I thought was the right thing to do and also did what I enjoyed. I took “baby steps” on my own and still do. And if somehow I am part of a change for the better, I can only be glad.

Andrea Lemieux: You’re well-known for being one of the biggest and most active advocates for Turkish wine. Do you also advocate for Turkish wine domestically? By which I mean, do you encourage other wineries in Turkey to also engage in this kind of (grape) conservation?

SK: I do my best to advocate for Turkish wine domestically as well. Of course, we have quite restrictive laws, and one must be within the law. I do what I can. But my efforts are more towards the educators, towards the trade and consumers. Everyone at a winery has [their] style, and it is not up to me to tell them what might be better for them or not.

AL: You’re making a variety of different styles of wine with these grapes (direct press and extended maceration rosés for Çakal; white and amber for Sıdalan and Kolorko; and blanc de noir, red/wild ferment, and two different rosés for Çalkarası). What is your inspiration for testing the limits of these grapes?

SK: Frankly speaking, I like to “push the envelope.” By testing the limits of these varieties, we learn more about them. For example, variety A might perform better with direct press, whereas variety B might give better results with skin contact of eight to ten hours. Also, by offering different styles of these indigenous varieties, we can attract a bigger audience in the export markets. Last but not least, we are enjoying testing the limits! It makes our job more fun.

AL: Where do you see the future of these particular grapes being in a global sense? Do you believe they matter only domestically or also on the global stage?

SK: Yes, I believe many of them will be well-known in a global sense; for example, Çalkarası. It is a great variety for making rosé wine as well as for making a red. Think of Nerello Mascalese. It was unknown 15 to 20 years ago, and now it is a “superstar.” Çalkarası has the potential to be a “superstar.”

I also believe in Yapıncak, Karasakız, Sıdalan, Kolorko, and Çakal. All of these varieties are varieties we export (not only sold or consumed domestically).

Our Çalkarası rosé has become our bestselling wine in the US. Our Yapıncak is the first and only Turkish wine sold in Hawaii. Our 6N Karasakız has become our bestselling wine in the UK. Our Sıdalan is exported to six EU countries (Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Finland, and the UK). These results are showing us that the consumers in our export markets are very receptive to Turkish wines. And I expect export volumes will grow in the coming years.

AL: Why now? In addition to you, there are a small number of other wineries working with and resuscitating little-known grapes now. Why do you think it’s taken the industry so long to wake up to the value of domestic varieties and appreciate these grapes?

SK: Wines made from international varieties might be interesting for the local market, but indigenous varieties are unique. And I suppose they realized that indigenous varieties are “treasures” of Turkey worth preserving through seeing others doing it.

AL: What would you like to see changed in the future for the Turkish wine industry, technical, theoretical, consumer education, etc., and what are you doing about it?

SK: I would like to see more cooperation amongst the winemakers and wineries and everyone in Turkey, including our government. Exports of wine are value-added exports. And those that will profit from these exports are not only the wineries and their staff but the whole country.

Think of the “image” of Turkey. This is a country that receives over 30 to 35 million tourists a year. Enjoying a good Turkish wine back at home will remind them to go back to Turkey again and again.

Limited Paşaeli wines are available in the US, including 6N, Çalkarası blush and rosé, as well as Yapıncak. In addition, you can follow on Instagram at @pasaeliwines.