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The Rising Stars in Turkish Wine Are Women

The Rising Stars in Turkish Wine Are Women

Andrea Lemieux
Women working the Arcadia harvest | Photo credit: Andrea Lemieux

In what is globally a male-dominated industry, Turkey emerges as an exceptional place to have a strong cade of women in the wine industry. Over a quarter of Turkey’s wineries employ women in a country where only about two in five working age women are in the labor force at all. Women here are winery owners, winemakers, educators, sales managers, and sommeliers. In addition, almost all those who work the harvests are women. Only women are trusted to show up and do the often-grueling job of harvesting. Men are known merely to sit around all day and drink tea!

When asked if they face problems in the industry stemming from being women, the responses here were overwhelmingly no. They must deal with many issues: making and promoting an alcoholic beverage in an increasingly conservative country and being Turkish in a sector that reveres foreign consultants. But these are challenges that confront both women and men here in Turkey.

So, who are these exceptional women?  Given the remarkable number of women in the industry, it is not possible in one article to mention all the talented women working in Turkish wine. As such, I reached out to several women to get a snapshot of those in the industry making wine, everywhere from multi-million bottle wineries to small, family-run businesses.

Winemaker Sibel Çoban Ürentay | Photo credit: Andrea Lemieux

It is impossible to talk about Turkish wine without mentioning Sevilen, one of the few makers to achieve international renown. Founded in 1942 by İsa Güner, Sevilen is one of Turkey’s largest and oldest wineries. The winery has 160 hectares of vineyards in various locations around Turkey, three production facilities, and produces 10 million bottles annually. In charge of all of that is Sibel Çoban Ürentay. Çoban got her start in wine in 1996 while doing an internship with Sevilen. There she fell in love with wine and never left. The bulk of her formal wine education was theory-based, and Çoban credits her on-the-job experiences for developing her skills and propelling her from intern to head winemaker. Sevilen offers wines made with both native Turkish grapes and international varieties. While she would like to work more with native grapes, the demand in Turkey for international varieties is too high to ignore. Regardless of which grape goes into the wine, Çoban wants to do more than “just make nice wine;” she wants to make sure that people outside Turkey get to know the wines produced here. Sevilen is off to a great start on that front, exporting to fourteen different countries. A team leader with a passion for research and getting her hands dirty in the vineyards, Çoban is involved in every step–from the harvest (when she works non-stop seven days a week) to the winemaking, blending, and even marketing, as she has designed several of Sevilen’s labels. She has set one goal after another for herself during her tenure at Sevilen, and given her success rate, we can expect to see some Sevilen biodynamic wine, her newest goal, soon.

Winemaker Gülçin Akçay | Photo credit: Andrea Lemieux

Over in Thrace, Gülçin Akçay serves as winemaker and viticulturist at Saranta, a winery established in 2007. Akçay cut her teeth at two other Thracian wineries, Barbare and Chamlija, where she worked as assistant winemaker. Hooked on winemaking since these early experiences, she went on to earn a master’s degree in Food Engineering. Like many women in the industry, Akçay wears multiple hats. She’s also a viticulturist at Saranta and consults for other vineyards, which makes her a formidable expert both on vineyards and in the winery. At Saranta, Akçay works mostly with international grapes including Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese, and Montepulciano. However, she also makes two different wines with Turkey’s number one black grape, Öküzgözü. She believes that it’s here, with the country’s native grapes, that Turkey’s potential lies. Her goal is to start working more intensely with them and help introduce the wines to the international market. Akçay credits her skill in the winery to her work as a viticulturist. She says that when she tastes the grapes in the vineyard, she can envision what the resulting wine will be like, and has not been wrong yet. Hopefully, that foresight will help her create the long ageable Turkish grape wine she hopes to make. At the moment, Saranta does not export, but they hope to do so in the future.

Winemaker Oluş Molu | Photo credit: Andrea Lemieux

About an hour’s drive from Turkey’s famous Cappadocia is the Vinolus winery owned and operated by Oluş Molu. In 2007 Molu, led by her love of wine and wine culture, decided to turn a family farm into a winery, thereby creating the first (and still only) winery in Kayseri. A biologist by schooling, Molu set out to ensure that her vineyards would be sustainable, and in 2009 earned them an organic certification from ORSER. Molu works with an oenologist for the wines but caring for the vines falls entirely in her hands. Her high altitude (3,770 ft/ 1,150 m) vineyards, composed of volcanic tuff soils, nurture a mix of native and international grapes including Kalecik Karası, Narince, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Syrah, and Tempranillo, which produce distinct and award-winning wines. While she may not be the winemaker, her dream includes a traditional method sparkling wine, made with native grapes, in her line-up. Molu keeps things small, making only about 10,000 bottles annually. At the same time, she works in the vineyards and has invested in the future of sustainable tourism. She recently opened a gastronomic hotel and restaurant, Sunolus, on site to promote rural tourism and provide guests with a holistic view of sustainable farming and winemaking. Currently, Molu’s Vinolus wines are available in Turkey, Germany, and the UK.

Winemaker Işıl Bulutsuz | Photo credit: Andrea Lemieux

After completing a master’s degree in industrial engineering, Işıl Bulutsuz changed course when her family bought a dilapidated winery on the shore of the Sea of Marmara. She moved to Paris, completed Le Cordon Bleu’s Wine and Management program, then gained experience working in wine shops in Paris and tasting her way through France while working with an American importer. Upon returning to Turkey, Bulutsuz went to work at the family Uçmakdere Winery alongside a consulting winemaker until the 2018 vintage when she took the reins as head winemaker. Uçmakdere only began planting its vineyards in 2020, but Bulutsuz, a self-proclaimed “acid freak,” is active in the contracted vineyards and makes sure to pick her fruit at the right time. Uçmakdere’s wines are all made with international grapes, but she works with the Tekirdağ Viticulture Research Institute to introduce new, native grapes to the vineyard. While she credits her family’s support for her success with that vintage, this young winemaker has a lot to take pride in. She not only made an array of richly delicious wines in her first vintage but also rebranded the winery by redesigning the labels to better reflect its spirit. “Firuze” is the original Turkish word for “turquoise”. We get the English name for the stone from the French who called it “pierre turqueise” meaning “Turkish stone.” While that’s always been the name of Uçmakdere’s wines, the labels, plain black with no particular graphics, never reflected it. Bulutsuz, always intrigued by the black marbling in the turquoise stone, created a label that features not only the semi-precious gemstone, but one where the marbling tells the winery’s hidden story, and represents its location under the sun, sandwiched between mountains and the sea.

Winemaker Gizem Demirbüken | Photo credit: Andrea Lemieux

Gizem Demirbüken grew up among the olive groves and vineyards of southern İzmir’s Urla region. After gaining a degree in chemistry from the İzmir Ege University and working as a chemist, Demirbüken realized that she was longing for the land. Wine had been a passion for her, so she abandoned chemistry and took a position as the production manager with one of Urla’s small production wineries, USCA. After five years there learning about viticulture, production, and management, she became the production manager at Paşaeli Şarapları (where 80 percent of her colleagues are women!) to work more closely with native grapes. During harvest time (September through November), Demirbüken practically lives at the winery getting in all the grapes. Difficult and exhausting work though it may be, this is her favorite part of the job. When the resulting wines turn out well, she’s proud to be able to say that she had her hand on every step of the process. Most of her winemaking education has been hands-on learning and working alongside her Turkish colleagues and international wine consultants. As a winemaker, she has definitely caught the fever for underappreciated Turkish grapes and would like to one day make a wine from an as-yet unknown grape and create her own brand. For Demirbüken, the most exciting thing about wine in Turkey is the native grapes, and she loves working with them and pushing the limits of what they can do. Paşaeli wines are available in the US, the UK, Spain, Germany, Serbia, Croatia, the Netherlands, Australia, and Canada (Quebec).

Winemaker Nazan Başol Uzun | Photo credit: Emma Başer Rose

Nazan Başol Uzun, an electrical engineer, lived and worked in California for several years and fell in love with wine. Upon returning to Turkey, she founded Chateau Nuzun in the small Thracian village of Çeşmeli in 2004. Uzun works with a winemaker at her winery but is very involved in every step, especially at harvest, which for her, is the most important step. Uzun was one of the first wineries in Turkey to get an organic certificate (in her case from CERES). At the same time, she is learning from her winemaker and studying the art of making wine but is, as she says, just at the beginning of this long road. In addition to making international grape-dominated wines, Uzun has begun re-establishing two native grapes on the brink of distinction: Selvi Karası (sel-veel ka-ra-sih) and Çatal Karası (cha-tal ka-ra-sih). In 2015, she produced a limited bottling of these wines as a blend but hopes to be able to bottle single varietal wines with them in the near future. In addition to these two rare grapes, Uzun would like to one day make a native varietal white wine. While not a winemaker technically, Uzun has the heart of one. Very few wineries in Turkey allow their wines time to cellar age before putting them on the market. Chateau Nuzun is one of the few exceptions and Uzun’s reserve series does not leave her cellar until four years after bottling. Outside of Turkey, Chateau Nuzun wines have limited availability in the UK and Taiwan, but Uzun expressed hope that she will be able to export more widely soon.