From traditional-method sparkling wine to amphorae-fermented wines made with grapes so rare they barely have names, there are few to no rules in Turkish winemaking. Turkey may have thousands of years of winemaking history, but it is just that, history. Modern Turkish wine and winemaking are still new. Without restrictions imposed by an appellation system, vintners are free to experiment and innovate as they go.
While lesser-known wine countries across Europe, from Hungary and Greece to Georgia and Moldova, are making a splash on the international market with their growing quality and indigenous grape varieties, Turkish wine remains largely underappreciated. And yet, this mix of modern and traditional no-holds-barred winemaking is precisely why our eyes should be fixed on the Turkish wine industry.
Both geographically and geopolitically, Turkey occupies a strange position. It’s Europe, but it’s not quite Europe. It has strong cultural ties to the Turkic countries in Central Asia, and both Europe and the Levant. The Turkish wine industry similarly struggles to define itself.
Unlike its neighbors, Bulgaria, Greece, and Georgia, which have reached various points in an industry renaissance, Turkey has been slow to discover its niche in the wine world. Thousands of years of winemaking history are contained in the borders of what is now Turkey. But history belongs not to the collective that is now the Republic of Turkey but to the disparate groups of people who occupied Anatolian territories. It wasn’t until the Byzantine and Ottoman empires that commercial production of wine took place. Unfortunately, records of winemaking practices during those periods are sketchy. We know how much might have been produced, especially under the Ottoman Empire, as they kept great taxation records. But those don’t inform which grapes or production methods were used.
The Ottoman Empire could be considered the glory days of Turkish winemaking as far as production numbers go. But the Turkish-Greek population exchange of the 1920s (during which by mutual agreement Turkey and Greece exchanged their ethnic Turkish and Greek populations) saw the majority of winemakers and winemaking know-how leave the country. Even though there was a lag of only 10 to 20 years before the industry picked itself back up, those were vital years that phylloxera made it to Turkey, and other crops replaced vineyards.
At the beginning of its slow climb towards recovery in the late 30s and 40s, Turkish wineries (the few that existed) grabbed onto the lifeline that was Europe. They piggy-backed onto Europe’s revitalized industry by importing vines, viticulture specialists and winemaking consultants. They sent their winemakers to oenological programs in Europe. France, the wine giant that attracted the most enthusiasts, has had an enormous impact on the evolution of Turkish wines. Syrah is one of the three most widely planted grapes in the country. Many in the industry here believe that the success of a winemaking business depends on whether you have a Bordeaux blend. Turkey is awash in wines made from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. There are also some less common French grapes like Semillon, Marselan, Tannat, and Ekigaïna. There are even some Italian and Spanish outliers like Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Fiano, and Tempranillo, thanks to the broader European influence of the time.
The lack of an appellation system is a double-edged sword. There are no committees or disciplinare to control quality in the vineyard or the bottle. Nor are there geographic indications to orient wine drinkers; to both give some clue about the type of wine and provide them something to connect to easily. If one says Sancerre, Tuscany, Rioja, Marlborough, or Napa, even most novice wine drinkers will have a general idea of where that place is and what the wine tastes like. Turkey does not have that. It may be true that, for example, the vast majority of Öküzgözü grows in Elazığ. But ‘Elazığ’ does not evoke the cherry-berry flavors of Öküzgözü; not for yabancis (foreigners) or Turks.
A PDO system provides wines with a sense of place and an idea of what is in the bottle, the style the wine might be, and quality assurance. As to the former, Turkey does require that any wine varietally labeled must contain a minimum of 85 percent of that grape. However, there are no imposed aging requirements, so you must hope the winery included information on the label to indicate the wine’s style. As far as quality goes, price is no indication in Turkey that what waits in the bottle is good or bad as the winemaker is the only variable that has control over quality checks.
But on the flip side…the freedom.
While many wineries have not stepped outside their Cabernet-Merlot-Chardonnay comfort zones and international grapes retain a stranglehold on the industry, more and more wine producers take advantage of the ability to experiment. Today’s most interesting wines come from producers specializing in native grapes or are stretching the limits of winemaking.
In Central Anatolia, near the capital Ankara, Tomurcukbağ and Vinkara specialize in Kalecik Karası, a black grape nearly extinct until Tomurcukbağ revitalized it in the 1970s. Nearby, Vinkara makes a wide range of wines from the grape, including Turkey’s first traditional method sparkling wine, Yaşasın. Farther east in Elazığ, Kayra, Eskibağlar, and Kuzeybağ concentrate their efforts on the regional grapes, Öküzgözü and Boğazkere. In the Aegean on the Gallipoli Peninsula, Suvla works with the black grape Karasakız, using it to make everything from savory rosés, simple unoaked reds, reserve, and grand reserve reds to a traditional method blanc de noir sparkling wine.
Across the country, more and more wineries are embracing native varieties. Many of them are taking more well-known Turkish grapes and trying different things with them. For example, Vinkara, near Ankara, created Yaşasın, the first traditional method sparkling wine with a native grape, Kalecik Karası, which previously had been used only for still red and rosé wines. Other wineries take a different approach and actively seek out and cultivate lost grapes. Thanks to wineries like Antioche, Chateau Nuzun, Gelveri, Gordias, Likya, Öküzgözü Şarapçılık, Paşaeli, and Urla Şarapçılık, Turkey now has wine made from some 20 grapes that few if any people had heard of ten years ago.
In Kırklareli, in Turkish Thrace, Chamlija is busy exploring the terroir of the Strandja Mountains. The winery has over a dozen plots scattered across the massif and its foothills, where they grow Narince next to Albariño, next to Papaskarası, next to Assyrtiko, next to Mavrud, next to Pinot Noir, next to Caladoc, and so forth. Chamlija was also the first winery to take the native Papaskarası beyond a simple red wine and age it in oak, use carbonic maceration, and make both a blanc de noir and a rosé with it. Now they’re adding to its blends to see how well it plays with other grapes.
Amber wine has recently become very popular in Turkey as well. For years, Gelveri winery near Cappadocia quietly made amphora-fermented and aged skin-contact wines. Now Chamlija, Gordias, Gürbüz, Kastro Tireli, Paşaeli, and Tasheli have all released their own, most of them made with native grapes.
Will Turkey ever adopt a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) system? At the moment, it seems unlikely. Outside of the minimal established winemaking regulations, the current government has no interest in supporting or advancing the wine industry. The winemakers’ association, Şarap Üreticileri Derneği, has too few members to introduce even informal measures. The producers themselves have mixed reactions. Some wineries don’t want a system because it could make their lives more difficult if, for example, they can no longer source grapes from elsewhere in the country or would have to treat the wines made from those grapes differently. Some don’t think it would be possible to introduce a system without government backing, something not likely to be offered by the current government.
There may come a time that Turkey’s wine industry will not prosper without a PDO system. If Turkish wineries want to become successful on an international scale, they will almost certainly need one. Until that time comes, winemaking in Turkey is a vast expanse of blank canvas on which winemakers may paint their own stories however they choose.
Turkey’s biggest problem in the international market right now is the lack of availability. With a few exceptions, namely, the UK, few quality wines are available abroad. To my knowledge, few big importers in the US have much Turkish wine, and only a handful of specialist importers are bringing in anything. So where does that leave those looking on this quality renaissance and native grape revival excitedly from abroad? Sadly, unfulfilled for the time being. However, until Turkish wines build an international following, Turkey is happy to host all those who come to discover the joys of the grapes for themselves!